No one knows chimpanzees like Jane Goodall.
Over the past six decades, the now 85-year-old English researcher has revolutionized the entire field of primatology. Goodall was among the first to study her subjects in the wild, treating them as conscious, complex individuals with distinct personalities and surprising quirks. Chimps, she found, displayed a wide range of emotions. They engaged in longstanding relationships and startling spates of violence. They were tool users and meat-eaters. They were ticklish.
Like their human cousins, Goodall argued, chimpanzees were worthy of names. They were worthy of respect.
Goodall’s work opened the world’s eyes to our closest great ape relatives. Now, six decades after she began her first round of fieldwork in Tanzania in 1960, that lens has finally been reversed.
An ongoing multimedia exhibition at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. charts the life and career of the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. Titled “Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall,” the show invites patrons to journey alongside Goodall, from her earliest scientific explorations to her current adventures.
Goodall’s story, told through a collection of childhood mementos, field notes and other personal effects, begins early in childhood. Her first recorded encounter with a chimpanzee happened at age one, when her father gifted her with a stuffed toy primate named Jubilee. Goodall kept the plush chimp close throughout her adult life. More than eight decades later, it is understandably worn, writes Erin Wayman for Science News.
Also evident in the display is Goodall’s precocious passion for nature. Some of her earliest favorite books included “Tarzan of the Apes” and “The Story of Doctor Dolittle.” When she was a bit older, Goodall spent her free time doodling—and anatomically labeling—careful drawings of wild animals with her friends.
“Jane was always Jane,” said Kathryn Keane, director of the National Geographic Museum, to the Washington Post’s Stephanie Williams last month. “She was born with this incredible curiosity, incredible bravery and desire to explore the world that was so obvious, even at such an early age. It seemed predestined for her to do what she did.”
The lines between Goodall’s personal and professional passions for wildlife quickly blur. But in 1960, her life hits a clear milestone: her first research foray into the Gombe Stream Game Reserve, located in what’s now Tanzania, under the mentorship of famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. This trip, and the many that followed, is immortalized by a facsimile of Goodall’s campsite—a bare bones setup—and a 3-D film that immerses viewers in some of her most impactful observations on chimpanzee behavior. Patrons can also enjoy an interactive experience at the “Chimp Chat” station, which invites users to mimic various primate vocalizations, hoots, hollers and all.
The show hits more somber notes, too. As chimpanzee populations worldwide continue to dwindle under the combined threats of poaching, habitat destruction and disease, researchers and conservationists—Goodall among them—are fighting to rescue them from the brink. The future of these animals, and many more, is in our hands, the show suggests.
But the exhibition’s star is reason enough not to lose hope: Sixty years into her career, Goodall and her inspiring work carry on.
“At 85 years old, she still travels 300 days a year doing her advocacy and education work,” Keane told Williams last year. “This exhibit is to really celebrate Jane. … It just felt like the right time to do this.”
“Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall” is on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. through September 7, 2020.