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Art & Museums

National Geographic exhibit shows 'wonder of nature and culture'

| Friday, June 17, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
California, 1977: A camera mounted on the tail of a Lockheed L-1011 captures the lights of an airport runway and city beyond.
©2011 National Geographic
Bruce Dale | National Geographic Stock
California, 1977: A camera mounted on the tail of a Lockheed L-1011 captures the lights of an airport runway and city beyond. ©2011 National Geographic
Kabul, Afghanistan, 1967, by Thomas J. Abercrombie: Covered by a traditional chadri, an Afghan woman balances caged goldfinches at a market in Kabul. ©2011 National Geographic
Thomas J. Abercrombie | National Geographic Stock
Kabul, Afghanistan, 1967, by Thomas J. Abercrombie: Covered by a traditional chadri, an Afghan woman balances caged goldfinches at a market in Kabul. ©2011 National Geographic
North Atlantic Ocean 1991 | With 10,000 watts of light and a pair of new submersibles, the Titanic comes to life two and a half miles down.
©2011 National Geographic
Emory Kristof / National Geographic Stock
North Atlantic Ocean 1991 | With 10,000 watts of light and a pair of new submersibles, the Titanic comes to life two and a half miles down. ©2011 National Geographic
Sub-Saharan Mali, 1997: Blowing sand from a dry lake bed clings to an 8-month-old baby as mother and children nap in Male.
©2011 National Geographic
Joanna B. Pinneo | National Geographic Stock
Sub-Saharan Mali, 1997: Blowing sand from a dry lake bed clings to an 8-month-old baby as mother and children nap in Male. ©2011 National Geographic
Kaalahari Gemsbok National Park, South Africa, 1996: A lion patrols the dry Nossob riverbed, center of a vast refuge for big game. ©2011 National Geographic
Chris Johns | National Geographic Stock
Kaalahari Gemsbok National Park, South Africa, 1996: A lion patrols the dry Nossob riverbed, center of a vast refuge for big game. ©2011 National Geographic
Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 1965: A quarter-million Muslim pilgrims jam Haram Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, in the city of Mecca. 
Photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie
Thomas J. Abercrombie | National Geographic Stock
Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 1965: A quarter-million Muslim pilgrims jam Haram Mosque, Islam’s holiest site, in the city of Mecca. Photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a new exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History will speak volumes.

The “50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic,” which opens June 18, will not only provide powerful and famous visual images, but will illustrate the missions of the museum and the National Geographic Society.

“We and the National Geographic Society are both interested in showing the wonder of nature and culture, and the unity between humanity and nature,” says Eric Dorfman, director of the museum.

Chris Johns curated the event and believes the images are of way of accomplishing that effort. He is now the executive director of the National Geographic Society's Centers of Excellence.

“In the selection process, we wanted photos that took our breath away,” Johns says in an email interview. “We wanted diversity in the images, and we wanted work that spoke to the heart and soul of National Geographic.”

The 50 photos were chosen from a 12-million image library, he adds.

The exhibit will be included with admission and be on display in the R.P. Simmons Family Gallery at the museum through Sept. 11.

It will include images such as Steve McCurry's shot of an Afghan girl, Mike Nichols' image of a chimpanzee reaching out to Jane Goodall and Thomas Abercrombie's view of Mecca.

The images not only provide a look at the world, but they are a view of the museum's new mission statement, which is only weeks old, says Rebecca Shreckengast, the site's director of exhibition experience.

“We want to use our collection and the work of scientific experts to make ourselves advocates and protectors of the Earth, its environment and its inhabitants,” she says.

Although it seems appropriate, the development of the mission statement is coincidental with the arrival of the exhibit, which has been in the works for more than a year, Dorfman says.

The statement was developed as a way of emphasizing the museum is not simply a place to examine the past, he says, but to see a way to look at the future.

“We want to get away from the myth that museums are places that are old and dusty,” he says.

Dorfman and Shreckengast believe the exhibit can help create that image by sparking conversation about the pictures and their meaning.

“We would like it to be a hub of conversation and inspiration,” he says. “If it doesn't spark thought right then, maybe it will several months later, when someone will say, ‘Hey, I saw something like that at the museum.' ”

The exhibit has been on the road since 2011, having been on display at 10 sites in the United States and 10 overseas, says Kathryn Keane, vice president of exhibitions at the National Geographic Society.

Johns began pulling the 50 photos together when he was editor-in-chief of the magazine to use in an app for the then-new iPad, Kean says. It was during the process that the idea of a touring show emerged.

Making the choices from that gigantic archive wasn't easy, Johns says.

“We have several people who know the archive thoroughly, have worked with it for decades and are deeply attached to it,” he says. “They were able to get the selection to a manageable level, and then the fun began. Once we had the greatest hits assembled, it took us — and I emphasize us — several weeks to make a selection of the final 50.”

Naturally, dealing with such a great collection can lead to heated discussion.

“The beauty, however, of a project like this is we do not get in a hurry,” he says. “We take our time and let our decisions percolate. After all, we were looking for timely and timeless photographs, which is National Geographic's strength.”

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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