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Becoming Jane exhibit at the National Geographic Museum // Photo: Rebecca Hale/National Geographic

Witness a Woman’s Dedication at Nat Geo’s Becoming Jane

“Jane was always… Jane. She was born curious.”

The Executive Director of the National Geographic Museum, Kathryn Keane, described Jane Goodall in this way as I began my exploration into National Geographic’s newest exhibit, “Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall.” I experienced my digital introduction to the ground-breaking primatologist only moments before. The exhibit began with three hanging panels that presented a video of Goodall as she prepared visitors for their journey through her life experiences. At the end of her welcome, a 3D chimp swung over the panels, foreshadowing the thrilling digital aspects that accompany the story of “Becoming Jane.”

A worn stuffed chimp, Jubilee, begins the history of a young girl’s interests that would eventually grow into Goodall’s exceptional passion for chimpanzees. The toy was missing hair and was terrifically weathered from years of childhood play. Another display case held copies of Tarzan of the Apes and The Story of Doctor Dolittle, children’s literature that sparked Goodall’s interest in the jungle. I experienced Goodall’s early infatuation with chimpanzees and their environment as I moved further into the exhibit that expertly fit 85 spectacular years of her life into a comparatively small space.

After graduating from secondary school and working for a few years to save money, Goodall took a boat to Kenya and embarked on a journey that would forever change her life. She met Dr. Louis Leakey along the way, a paleoanthropologist who studied human origins, and he hired Goodall as his secretary. He later enlisted her help in studying chimpanzees, humankind’s closest relative, to better understand early humans. This began their observations in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, and at this point in the exhibit, I walked beneath a replica of Goodall’s research tent in Gombe. I examined duplicates of her typewriter and the journals she used to take field notes, examples of clothing she wore and a replica of her cot.

After exiting the tent, I encountered a hologram-like representation of Goodall, but the most impressive aspect of the exhibit was around the corner. I donned a pair of 3D glasses and entered a virtual reality of Gombe National Park where Jane conducted her initial research. I stood with other visitors in the center of the room as the jungle swayed around us, and we were transported to the peak Jane sat atop to observe wildlife. Then, two chimpanzees appeared before us and studied us as they did Jane in her first close encounter with the mammals. We met David Greybeard, the chimp that Goodall sensed trusted her most from the beginning, and the jungle around us continued to move with unforeseen life. We experienced Gombe as Jane did so many years ago, and we imagined her frustrations and victories as chimpanzees ran from us, observed us and eventually approached us.

Upon returning to the real world, I heard screeching. It took me a moment to realize that visitors were attempting to mimic chimpanzee grunts and yells at play stations. There were also interactive binoculars and a virtual jungle to view chimpanzee habits. I looked through the binoculars to observe a mother and her offspring bantering. It wasn’t until I looked away from the binoculars that I realized no one else could see what I was seeing. It was a personal moment to observe social bonds as Goodall did in Gombe National Park.

The last stretch of the exhibit focused on Goodall’s activism. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a conservation organization, in 1977 and continues to advocate for a healthy environment for all species. Despite the current dire situation of our environment, Goodall claims there are five reasons to maintain hope: “young people, the human brain, the resilience of nature, the power of social media and the indomitable human spirit.” She is hopeful that humanity will realize they want to save the world they inhabit.

Before leaving, visitors are challenged to reduce their environmental impact by using less plastic, avoiding palm oil or taking a walk to document nature. There were stations set up to make pledges, and I chose to avoid palm oil, a common vegetable oil responsible for mass deforestation. My name appeared on a leaf, representing my pledge, and the leaf floated away to find its place on a tree projected near the exit of the exhibit. Eventually, the entire tree will be coated in leaves and promises as visitors pledge to advocate for our environment and realize that a regular person can impact the world today for a better tomorrow.

“Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall” is on display through Summer 2020 at the National Geographic Museum. The exhibit is made in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute with assistance from the Linda K. Berdine Foundation and Dov and Elma Levy. Various times. Tickets $10-$15.

National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; www.nationalgeographic.org

National Geographic’s Queens of Egypt: Women Who Ruled the Ancient World

The ancient Egypt you know is a lie. It’s a golden, glittering myth created by Hollywood as an excuse to parade Elizabeth Taylor around draped in gold and makeup. The ancient world could not have been so divorced from the Egypt of my youth: dusty, hot, poor and filled with people who aren’t white.

One exhibit in DC this year is setting the record straight.

The National Geographic Museum is hosting an exhibit on the Queens of Egypt in DC until September 2, and Nat Geo researchers have taken a more nuanced approach to discussing women rulers in ancient Egypt.

The way ancient Egypt exists in the collective Western imagination is not actually how it existed at all. According to National Geographic Egyptologist and author of When Women Ruled the World, Kara Cooney, real life in the ancient world was extraordinarily hard.

“The reality was very different,” Cooney says. “We’re talking about people with a much darker skin color to be sure – people of a North African descent – and a place that, while opulent for a few, was much more real for others in terms of a hard life: constant labor, farming, parasites, diseases, life expectancy at the age of 30.”

The myth probably started with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. For all of his contributions to literature, the Bard portrayed Egypt as little more than a place to get a tan and cheat on your wife.

So even though there was more to life in ancient Egypt, at least we are right in feeling empowered by its female rulers. Right? Well, it’s more complicated than the “You go, girl” mentality we tend to adopt when talking about Egypt’s queens.

Although some women were able to attain the highest positions of power in Egypt, they still ruled and existed within a rigid, unforgiving patriarchal society. Many queens were simply holding the throne until the rightful king – a son, nephew or brother – was old enough to assume it.

And while each queen ruled differently – facing different challenges, accomplishing different goals and failing in different ways – their entire existence as a ruler was in service of a system that would hand power to the appropriate male as soon as he was old enough.

“There were some women who could surmount the obstacles in their path of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but there was not one woman who was a feminist who was going to move the system in a different direction,” Cooney says. “There was no way of thinking in that way in the ancient world.”

The West likes to think of Cleopatra as the most empowered of queens – even Cooney describes her as the least traditional. But her relationships with Roman warlords, which long ago captured the Western man’s imagination, were intended to solidify her power. And by getting involved with Rome, she invited their violence and civil war into Egypt, Cooney says.

“She’s brought herself into that realm so one can ask: is that Cleopatra knowing she needs a man, a male presence by her side, and looking to the strongest man in her political arena and getting herself in trouble by drawing a target on her back?”

The fact that Cleopatra is the queen cemented in our minds is quite revealing. Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1479-1425 BC, was arguably the most successful queen.

Hatshepsut assumed the throne as regent on behalf of her infant stepson after her husband’s death. After just five years, she was crowned pharaoh. She was such a successful ruler that she was often depicted with masculine features, including a beard as a symbol of her power.

According to Cooney, the queens we can name tell us a lot about how we treat women in power. The ones who succeed have their womanhood erased. The ones who fail are immortalized as a warning against vice and promiscuity.

“One succeeded and one failed. One is forgotten and one is remembered. And I like those comparisons. They’re very useful for us to see what we do to the female who is a failure. [We] make her a cautionary tale. And what do we do to the [successful queen]? Just erase her.”

If learning about the queens of ancient Egypt with all their complexities and flaws sounds more interesting than watching Elizabeth Taylor make eyes at white men for four hours, then check out the National Geographic Museum’s Queens of Egypt exhibit.

The exhibit is open daily until September 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12 and can be purchased online or at the museum until 5 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit at
www.nationalgeographic.org/events/exhibition/queens-egypt.

National Geographic Museum: 1145 17th St. NW, DC; 202-857-7700; www.nationalgeographic.org