Philippe Petit
Philippe Petit crossed the National Building Museum's Great Hall on a 50-foot high wire Credit: Camila Bailey

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Elementary school students from six Title I District schools got a nontraditional lesson in architecture and engineering on Friday, March 24, from Philippe Petit. The French high-wire artist is known for his—both lawful and clandestine—tightrope walks between prominent monuments around the world. He has previously made unauthorized treks between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in 1971, across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973, and between the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974.  

Petit’s D.C. high-wire debut took place at the National Building Museum with Wonder on the Wire, where he crossed the museum’s Great Hall at approximately 50 feet above the ground. While significantly shorter than his past stunts, Petit’s audience was no less impressed, as was the high-wire artist himself. 

“I have dreamed of performing at the National Building Museum since I first saw a picture of the Great Hall a dozen years ago,” Petit says in NBM’s press release.

Petit initially performed the NBM stunt Thursday night for the museum’s evening fundraiser to support its upcoming exhibition, Building Stories, which is scheduled to open in November. While Thursday’s ticketed event included cocktails, a live jazz accompaniment, and a reception in the Great Hall, Friday’s Wonder on the Wire was much more modest. 

Credit: Camila Bailey

“Last night we had a room full of important people in tuxedos,” Petit tells City Paper. “So I tried to make the performance elaborate…more of a show. But for the kids, I knew they did not have the same attention span.” He shortened the crossings and slowed things down for his new audience. 

The idea to bring in children to see Petit physically engage with NBM’s architecture comes from the same idea driving Building Stories: “To engage all ages in an immersive exploration of the world of architecture, engineering, construction, and design,” as the press release explains. The new exhibit was developed as an interactive space for audiences of all ages, with a special focus on children.

Petit finds a unique joy in performing his stunts for children. “When you perform for adults you astonish them, but when you do the same for kids, you’re a god,” he says. He considers himself a child at heart, saying that he “will never grow up.” 

Following his Friday walk on the wire, Petit spoke to the students and answered a few of their questions. He used his daring stunts to encourage the children to explore the world around them, even if it scares them. 

“I began [high-wire crossing] because I was passionate. I don’t have courage, I have passion,” he told the students.

NBM hoped to get the same message to Friday’s young audience. In their press release, Aileen Fuchs, President and Executive Director of the Museum, says, “This event exemplifies the Museum’s guiding Pillar of Impact: Wonder. It’s our hope that WONDER ON THE WIRE will inspire people of all ages to look up at the beauty around us, develop a better understanding of our place in the world, and return to the museum to explore possibilities and dream with us.”