“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