As part of our long weekend with the National Geographic Society from November 19-21, 2009, we had access to the behind-the-scenes activities that make NatGeo the amazing organization it is today.
The seal of the National Geographic Society
On Friday, November 20th, after a breakfast where a number of senior members of the Society spoke, including the Society’s chairman, Gil Grosvenor, we were given a tour of the offices. The tour started with a look at what all goes into putting together a single issue of National Geographic Magazine.
Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last several decades (in which case it’s unlikely you’re reading this blog in the first place), you are familiar with the magazine and its incredible stories and photos covering diverse topics about our planet – typically focusing on man’s interaction with nature and nature’s mysteries.
A statue of a primal woman at the offices of the National Geographic Society
What sets National Geographic Magazine apart from any other publication is the phenomenal photography accompanying each article, the detailed and informative map inserts, the lack of advertising in the features section of the magazine, and the fact that the Society and the explorers they fund may invest months or years in just one article in order to produce definitive works of knowledge to share with the masses. The magazine’s audience appears to appreciate the effort – there are nearly seven million subscribers worldwide (around five million of those are in the U.S.). The magazine comes as part of membership in the National Geographic Society, which costs a mere $15 a year. I’m proud to say that I ponied up back in the 1990s and became a lifetime member of the Society back then.
Linda waits for a presentation about National Geographic Magazine
During our tour, we got to see the various articles and photos which would go into the May 2010 issue of the magazine, as well as learn about the process of how stories are pitched and then researched. Many features are in the planning stages for months or even years. And the gorgeous photos in each monthly edition of the magazine don’t come cheap either. A typical photo shoot may take six to eight weeks, and result in 30,000 or more photos, of which only perhaps a dozen will appear in the magazine.
Each issue of the magazine is finalized and put to bed about two to three weeks before the publication month. For example, the Decemeber 2009 issue had been signed off on during the second week of November.
The editorial and production staff are typically working on several months worth of stories at any given time, and keeping all that straight requires excellent planning and organizational skills.
Our next stop after production was the cartographic department where the amazing National Geographic maps are developed and kept up to date. And keeping the maps up to date is a pretty intense process. An example given to us was a Eurasian lake that had been shrinking dramatically over the last decade, enough so as to require an edit of the core map data. The evidence of this geographical change came from a series of images taken by satellite over a long period of time (see image below).
Juan at the National Geographic Society explains how maps change over time
Other map changes are political, as ever shifting country boundaries need to be reflected in maps. Also, we learned that China has been taking drastic steps to move large populations from the country to cities – so much so that they need to build a city the size of Philadelphia every two months (and apparently they are succeeding). However, this move of populations to urban areas in China and elsewhere results in smaller cities, towns, and villages becoming effectively uninhabitated, and as such needing to be removed from the massive GIS (Geographic Information System) the Society maintains to generate its maps from.
The National Geographic Society also does business with entities, such as tourism boards, which want localized maps created by the Society. After all, having “National Geographic Society” on a map lends it significant legitimacy. But that causes some interesting issues as well, including requirements that geography be renamed to meet local customs, or that bits of land be shown to be part of the client country instead of belonging to the country that might be occupying said bits of land. Likewise, oceans and seas we know by a particular name may go by a completely different name in other countries (even taking translations into account).
While we know cartography is complicated, we had never realized the nuances that existed with respect to particular audiences. In a way the situation is a variant of the saying “History is written by the victors”. Perhaps it’s “maps are determined by self-interest”.
To National Geographic’s credit, when changes which the Society’s cartographers believe to distort accepted practices and understanding are included in Society-produced maps, there is also a disclaimer added to such maps which explains the accepted standards versus what the map represents.
From cartography we moved to the CritterCam labs where technical geniuses continue to figure out ways to mount cameras to critters.
Some of you may know that I had, for about eight years, the distinction of running the world’s longest running underwater WebCam – the Bonaire ReefCam. While that was a technically challenging project due (and one I will resume shortly), we had the benefit of a fixed location for mounting the camera.
The guys at the National Geographic CritterCam Lab are continuously trying to figure out ways to place video cameras in places where they can be used to study animal behavior, and that typically involves attaching a camera to the animal in question. The cameras are self-contained and include things like GPS trackers so that the cameras can later be retrieved, and more importantly, the video footage they captured. For CritterCams which are used on aquatic creatures there’s also some special hardware which, after a preprogrammed time, will cause the camera housing to detach itself from the shark, whale, or penguin (among other critters) it was attached to and float to the water’s surface for retrieval.
We visit the CritterCam lab at the National Geographic Society. Note the shark fin replica on the work bench. It's used for testing a dorsal clamp for a shark CritterCam.
While the CritterCams are not WebCams (yet), they can capture some absolutely incredible footage. While we were in the lab, we were shown footage captured when they managed to attach a camera to a Humboldt Squid, a creature that can grow to about six foot in length. They discovered that when the CritterCam emitted light that other squid attacked it, violently. So the next model did not emit a light.
After another few presentations we headed off for lunch, also set up by the National Geographic Society. We were treated to a visit to foreign soil as part of our lunch, as it took place in the Embassy of Afghanistan. Ambassador Jawad had been scheduled to greet us personally, but the somewhat sudden inauguration of Afghan president Hamid Karzai the day before required that he be in Kabul instead. We were instead received by the Ambassador’s assistant, and presented with a wonderful selection of Afghan cuisine for lunch.
We are offered a wonderful array of authentic Afghan dishes at the Embassy
Our lunch included a presentation by the Society’s archeaology fellow, Fred Hiebert, on the recovery of ancient Afghan treasures stashed away as the Taliban took power and brought back out after their defeat. Fred was personally involved in cataloging many of the ancient works, and then also curating the National Geographic’s exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum“.
Bob Ballard joins us in a family photo at the Embassy of Afghanistan
One of our lunch companions was Bob Ballard, best known for the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titantic, the battleship Bismarck, and the USS Yorktown. But his ocean exploration extends far beyond those wrecks, sharing his works with students around the world with the JASON Project. He is also working on a a new project coming which involvse the use of Internet2 for global real time discovery and documentation of new underwater finds on his new research vessel. We had first met Bob in 1997, as Linda was pregnant with Bas, while working at the Boston Sea Rovers Clinic in Boston, and it was nice to get reacquainted.
Another presentation we attended at NatGeo HQ
We returned to NatGeo HQ after lunch for a few more presentations, including the one pictured above about Geo-Literacy, and a more in depth presentation by Bob Ballard about his new research and discoveries.
That evening our dinner was at the Cosmos Club, a private social club with close ties to the National Geographic Society – the Society’s founding members were also members of the Cosmos Club. The club’s membership includes numerous luminaries including Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel Laureates.
One of the halls at the Cosmos Club in D.C.
A comfortable looking club chair in the member library at the Cosmos Club
While the facilities were impressive and distinguished, I think I would find it difficult to be a member of any club with a strict dress code, as my normal daytime work attire consists of a t-shirt, shorts, and bare feet.
After dinner we watched several more presentations pertaining to the efforts of the Society, including discussions of social media, film, and exploration funding, and were then taken back to our hotel.
The following morning, Saturday, we hopped on a bus which took us out for a guided tour of the Manassas Battlefield in nearby Manassas, Virginia. Our guide, Craig, spent most of our bus ride to Manassas explaining the events leading up to the secession of States from the Union and the subsequent U.S. Civil War. The first major battle of the Civil War was fought at Manassas in July 1861, and another important battle fought there again in August 1862.
An old farmhouse which played part in the Civil War battles in Manassas, Virgina
Headstones for Ellen Morris, Judith Henry, and Hugh Henry at Manassas
Our tour guide, Craig, provides a description of the battles at Manassas
Be careful or you'll shoot your eyes out with that cannon, Bas!
Memorial to Stonewall Jackson, with lots of artistic license in terms of musculature for both Jackson and his horse
After our tour of the Manassas battlefield we were taken to the home of Gil and Wiley Grosvenor. Gil is the chairman of the National Geographic Society and great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. Gil and Wiley live in the Virginia countryside, about an hour or so outside Washington, D.C., on a beautiful farm.
A giant NatGeo map of Asia used for educating school children about geography
As we arrived we were greeted by a huge National Geographic map of Asia which the Society uses as an educational tool for school kids. We were also treated to the music of Marie Miller and her fellow musicians as we explored Gil’s barn and land.
Krystyana uses a fisheye lens to snap a shot of her new equine friend
Horse face fisheye image by Krystyana
In the barn, in addition to being introduced to several breeds of horses (including ones we had never heard of), we were served a couple of delightful wines made in Virginia – not a place one normally expects to find as a producer of good wines. The vineyard responsible for the wines was Rappahannock Cellars, and the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc they served were very worthwhile. We also got to enjoy three more of their wines with our lunch. Sadly, Virginia has rules against shipping wines out of state so we were unable to order any to send home for later enjoyment.
Our fellow NatGeo Grosvenor Council members for a final farewall photo on the giant map
After an enjoyable meal and some great conversation, we all gathered on the giant map for a group photo before heading back to D.C. for the night and dinner on our own (which I hope to document shortly).
Cool lighting and shadow as we leave Gil's farm in the Virginia countryside
Additional photos from these two days can be found here on Flickr.