By Catie Anderson, curator of education
Think for a moment like a 10-year-old. At a time when our minds are malleable and craving adventure, we’re confined to homework and childhood chores. Escape comes through daydreams of new experiences, places, and people. As a self-assured and animated 10-year-old, I easily envisioned that my life’s work would cleverly combine marine biology, anthropology, and becoming the next Jane Goodall.
Visits to my grandparents’ living room included exploring bookshelves lined with hundreds of National Geographic magazines, each bursting with stories, photographs, and maps featuring exotic landscapes and intellectual heroes on the brink of discovery. No doubt, the image of tidy rows of glossy, golden-yellow magazine spines is a familiar one for many; it seems everyone knows at least one die-hard subscriber whose collection of secondhand discoveries was on display for all to admire.
I earned my own subscription to National Geographic, which along with Mad Magazine and Archie comics, littered my bedroom floor throughout middle school. As I grew older, National Geographic became less of a seductive career catalogue and more of a moral compass. What interests should I have? Which soapboxes should I as a precocious young lady debate at the dinner table? Deforestation, desertification, dams, the Dalai Lama, DNA . . . the possibilities were endless and those were just the “d”s! The notion of becoming a well-traveled, cultured dilettante proved too tempting and any article I could comprehend – just enough to be dangerous, mind you – was fair game. I guess that’s the mark of a millennial – confident (clueless?) enough to scold your parents’ water use as they put dinner on the table.
As I type this blog in my office, I glance over my shoulder, to see a favorite poster of Western Hemisphere bird migration routes. This poster unfolded from a National Geographic magazine traveled from my bedroom in Chicago to my dorm room at Beloit College to my office bulletin board at the Woodson Art Museum.
National Geographic shaped the monologues of thousands of young readers who relied on the publication to serve as their passport, ethical doctrine, and curator of culture. Perhaps I’m too young to have such nostalgia for a magazine that debuted 100 years before I was born. But, before the internet was my main source of discovery, this magazine stoked and satisfied my inquisitive nature and every young person’s quest to find their niche in the world.
Images from the magazine’s most famous stories and photographers grace the Museum’s galleries in 50 Greatest National Geographic Photographs, on view Saturday, November 22 through February 22. Like old friends, some images and stories you’ll recognize instantly – as synonymous with the magazine – such as Steve Curry’s Afghan girl. Others will have personal significance. I will never forget the heartache I felt when I first viewed William Albert Allard’s image of a young Peruvian boy crying at the sudden loss of his flock following a traffic collision. The photographs on view, deemed the fifty greatest by the publication, represent the beauty, pain, challenges, and triumph of the human spirit. Celebrate these images, the stories they tell, and the memories they evoke by visiting the Woodson Art Museum often this winter.
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