National Geographic, the primal Society

In the middle of an African gully, Paleontologist Donald Johanson scrapes away soil, slowly uncovering a 3.5 million-year-old skeleton. That night, Johanson and his team celebrated the discovery in their tents as The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” played in the background. Nobody remembers how, but the nickname Lucy was given to the female hominid. Lucy’s discovery was flashed around the world and her name became a household word.

(Note the origin story, icon, ritual, sacred words, and leader just revealed. Equally important hominids have been discovered before and since, yet Lucy alone retains a special place in our imaginations, because she sparkles with primal code.)

The story of Lucy is one that National Geographic Society founders would have been proud of when the Society was founded in 1888. The founders were thirty-three learned and accomplished men of Washington society who met at the Cosmos Club on January 13, 1888. Some of them, like John Wesley Powell, were explorers and geographers themselves. Others were generalists simply interested in the world and all it contained. Although the formal mission statement declared the creation of “a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge,” one of its most prominent founders inventor Alexander Graham Bell, succinctly declared that the Society was about “The world and all that’s in it.”

In the beginning, the Society published a sporadic, text-only journal with cumbersome scientific articles solicited from its members. That changed after Alexander Graham Bell became Society president and in 1903, he formally announced Gilbert H. Grosvenor as editor of National Geographic magazine. Grosvenor was a cousin of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first Society president. He was young, ambitious, and the fact that he was courting Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter may have influenced his employment. Nonetheless, Grosvenor provided a ready ear for Bell’s suggestions and proceeded to improve the writing and subject matter of the magazine. Slowly, Grosvenor solicited new articles and magazine content improved.

Then, late one night as Grosvenor was preparing the January, 1905 issue for the printer, he discovered with horror that the magazine was eleven pages short. Frantic, he searched his office for an overlooked article–anything, and opened an envelope filled with photos of Lhasa, Tibet. He separated out the best and sent the photos to the printer with the rest of the magazine, then held his breath. The issue was a mesmerizing success as people discovered with their own eyes the remotest ends of the planet. Expecting to be fired, instead Grosvenor was applauded. His “mistake” became the hallmark of National Geographic magazine, and testimony of the discovery explorations and knowledge that the Society funded and exposed to the public for the next hundreds years and more.

On April 6, 1909, Robert E. Peary and Matthew A. Henson reached the North Pole in a National Geographic Society-supported expedition. In 1912, Hiram Bingham dug through Inca remains in Machu Picchu. In 1920, South Pole explorer Richard E. Byrd flew over the South Pole. Jacques-Yves Cousteau photographed the undersea world. Louis and Mary Leakey discovered Zinjanthropus. Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees. Dian Fossey studied gorillas. Apollo 11 astronauts planted the National Geographic Society flag on the moon. Robert D. Ballard discovered the Titanic. Joydeep Bose studied India’s endangered Phayre’s leaf monkey. All thanks to funding provided by the National Geographic Society.

“Our mission is the spirit of exploration,” says Linda Berkeley, President of National Geographic Enterprises and the Executive Vice President of National Geographic. “When people do anything connected with National Geographic, they expect to increase their knowledge about the world, and in some spirited way to be empowered to explore or to become part of some exploration.” The explorer’s spirit is the creed that motivates the entire organization. “The world and all that’s in it” that Alexander Graham Bell set out to investigate is a vast, all-encompassing credo that constantly seeks out new horizon lines in paleontology, biology, geology, anthropology, astronomy, oceanography, archaeology, and geography.
Linda Berkeley, who is a recent import from Walt Disney Corporation, was not surprised to learn that National Geographic has just as much resonance with consumers. “This name has so much resonance for people,” she says, “because the idea of exploring has no age limit to it, no mental capacity limit. It starts when you’re born and it can increase as you get older. And there are so many ways it can manifest itself through culture, through nature, animals, and through very important topics like global warming, disarmament, even obesity. There’s no limit to what you can explore and how you can learn, and that’s what National Geographic stands for. It has enormous resonance. It’s not a basic need,” adds Berkeley. “It’s a basic soulful need. That desire is never going to go away.”

The fundamental icon for National Geographic, of course, is the magazine that arrives each month. With its yellow-framed front cover (the yellow band was adorned with acorns when it first appeared in 1910) the iconic yellow frame surrounds the cover photo, inviting people to look inside. Perhaps National Geographic’s most iconic cover–although it seems presumptuous to choose only one–is the beatific gaze of Sharbat Gula, the teenage Afghan girl who appeared on the June 1985 cover. According to NGS, her tourmaline-eyed unwavering stare is the most recognized photograph in the magazine’s history. The thousands of other images included in the magazine are also valuable icons. Each month, the appearance of colorful tree frogs, full-breasted natives, undersea exploration, bursting volcanoes and toothsome dinosaurs have been welcome sights for thousands of subscribers from Emperor Haile Salassie, Theodore Roosevelt and Al Capone to your local public library. Other NGS icons include the National Geographic flag, which has been hoisted on mountains, in remote jungle camps, flown from ship masts and posted on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. The headquarters of the National Geographic Society on 17th Street in Washington, D.C. is also an icon of exploration, discovery and learning. In 2005, National Geographic flew its flag over the iconic ship National Geographic Endeavour in an alliance with Lindblad Expeditions. The ship is an entry into the growing category of expedition travel, as lay people interact with NGS scientists, photographers and researchers to explore remote, untrammeled and endangered parts of the world. “I think of brands as a promise to a customer,” says Linda Berkeley. “When somebody buys something with National Geographic on it, it says something about who they are. What we stand for resonates with them. In a world that has multiplied the ways you reach people, and things happen so quickly and there’s so much exposure, you have to be ever vigilant. You have so many consumer touchpoints. The responsibility is to make sure that in every way you are meeting the expectation of the consumer. I see that as a big responsibility.”

Each month, as people pull their fresh issue of National Geographic magazine from the mailbox, they are holding an icon of the National Geographic Society in their hands. The same is true for readers of National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, and National Geographic Kids. National Geographic has evolved from one magazine to a media company educating millions through four magazines, the National Geographic Channel, the web site, books and the lecture program National Geographic Live!. “We began as an organization to help people learn about the world, with a magazine to let people hear the stories that we brought back from all over the world,” says Linda Berkeley. “Now we can tell those stories through television, through trips, through DVDs, videos, and the internet. We’re robust because we’ve kept moving and growing with the same essence and the same mission.” NGS also has explorers-in-residence, living icons who embody the National Geographic Society’s ideals of exploration and discovery. A more recent development is a catalog’s worth of National Geographic-branded items, from backpacks to bed sheets.

Collecting each issue of National Geographic was once an easy poor man’s collectible. Ironically, because so many people saved them, the yellow stacks of National Geographic never became as valuable as people hoped. The ritual of collection goes hand in hand with the ritual arrival of each monthly issue. There are other ritual sessions held in Grosvenor Auditorium, during National Geographic Live! sessions where people pay up to $60 to hear lectures by Himalayan mountaineers, Alaskan dogsledders, performance concerts, and biologists in search of the rare blue morpho butterfly.
Former Editor-in-Chief Bill Allen used to tell people about the night he met Bob Ballard at the
airport. Ballard was carrying a bag of film, which he brought back from sunken Titanic for processing.
The ritual return of scientists, explorers and photographers from the field are acts of discovery at NGS.

The current Human Genome Project, whose goal is to collect DNA samples from 100,000 people around the world, is another ritual that involves not only NGS but collaborators IBM and individual persons.

“Live from National Geographic” lectures in Seattle, Chicago and in other cities around the country are
also ritual events that celebrate milestones of discovery. So are the ritual announcements at National
Geographic Society, like the discovery of fossil remains of the gargantuan crocodilian, Sarcosuchus
imperator
. The discovery of the oldest footprints of modern humans ever found, the frozen mummy of an
Inca girl found on a summit in Peru in Society’s Explorers Hall, are all ritualized celebrations with
tremendous meaning for members of the Society. It should be noted that activities associated with the
process of discovery also have their own rituals. Setting out on the voyage, digging on the site, trekking
through remote mountain regions all have prescribed rituals that can determine the mission’s
success or failure.

Sacred words associated with National Geographic include Alexander Graham Bell’s original maxim, The world and all that’s in it. There are also the words known scientists and the lexicon of their field, whether it’s biology or paleontology, they have words dedicated to their profession that describe their world. There is also the word of discovery from the field. The follow-up lecture series at Grosvenor Lecture Hall. The roving lecture series that visits cities like Seattle. These are the hallowed verbal moments wrapped in dialogue description, and discovery.

The pagans or nonbelievers in the face of NGS’s far-flung challenge to discover the world and all that’s in it, are those people who choose to remain ignorant in sense of the word root ignorare, men and women who elect to ignore the world around them. This is 180º from Alexander Graham Bell’s challenge to discover the world and all that’s in it. The great strength of NGS, as Linda Berkeley points out, is its accessibility to the common man, woman and child. Knowledge has no hierarchy, other than an openness to curiosity and a desire for discovery. Although it seems inconceivable that the National Geographic Society would have people opposed to its point of view (its satisfaction rating among consumers is over 90%), they are likely to be found from the competitive side. Other societies and companies angling for a similar consumer base. And as the Society’s immersion in television, the internet and licensing grows, their high-minded thirst for knowledge and discovery will face competition in the marketplace for audience and the consumer’s share of wallet, just as cereal companies do.

The leaders of the National Geographic Society from its the first president Gardiner Greene Hubbard to current Chief Executive Officer John Fahey, have been charged with the task of leading the Society in its far-flung searches for knowledge and discovery. Other leaders were founding members like Alexander Graham Bell and John Wesley Powell. And then there is the line of Grosvenors who edited the magazine and also Chris Johns, the current Editor In Chief, who have guided the spirit of NGS through over a thousand issues of the magazine. But ins some sense, the real leaders of the National Geographic Society are the men and women who are in the field, leading the expeditions of discovery. Whether they are scientists, writers, explorers, photographers or television producers, they are the people truly responsible for capturing the knowledge that we are ultimately exposed to. “One of the things that National Geographic has done so well is that no here sits on their laurels,” says Linda Berkeley. “What I hear is, what do we do to get better? What do we do so that we’re connecting to people? It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s an exciting thing to be doing.”

Through its unwitting use of the primal code, the National Geographic Society has the enthusiasm of millions of people around the world. The NGS has encouraged people from a young age to discover, to explore, to wander gullies in search of cephalopods, search for arrowheads, and poke through tidepools. It is a diverse and robust community with over seven million English readers of National Geographic magazine, another two million readers in languages from Spanish to Indonesian. National Geographic Network is seen by 250 million viewers. And there are 50 million page views on the NGS website. “We’re constantly saying, how can we talk about the subjects in ways that connect to people. That’s what keeps names and people going for as long as National Geographic has.”