Art Exhibit Review: Unintended Journeys at the Natural History Museum


molly pfeffer

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After dizzily making my way around the second floor of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, a sign guided me though the rocks and minerals gift shop and finally to the newest temporary exhibit. Unintended Journeys, a collection of award-winning photographs journaling the life within environmental refugee locations, is ironically tucked away in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery. Spotlighting the rapid human displacement, environmental change and hardships resulting from climate change and natural disasters the last ten years, Unintended Journeys features photographs by Magnum Photos, a photography collaborative that strives to make the experiences of these regions reality.

Dimly lit, the nook of an exhibit is organized by natural disaster – Haiti after the earthquake, desertification in East Africa, New Orleans post-Katrina, tsunami-struck Japan, and Bangladesh under coastal flooding. The quiet murmur of a few voices struck me first. Two women in their fifties intelligently pondered the photos of Japan, a young backpacked couple sat to watch a video about Katrina, and a family embarked on an unintended journey from the back entrance just to pass through. Something about the silence of the photographs’ subjects juxtaposed with the lack of much discussion in the room explained what the exhibit may attempt to portray. Everything quiet and hauntingly peaceful about the images fencing viewers into the onlookers’ reality.

Whether intentional or not, each region appeared to have a theme. Japan’s was of nature versus industrialization. The photos showed urban areas drenched in concrete rubble, small mothers making camp in a school gymnasium, and a family sitting down to eat microwaved noodles. I thought about the lives of survivors. With everything collapsed around them, the people appeared to be doing their best to cope with the tragedy while still trying to live how they did pre-tsunami; to live with stuff. The Japan photos were the most surreal.

Faces stood out in the photographs of Haiti. The images captured close-ups of patients in pop-up medical facilities, people holding dirt-covered dolls, and a father with his two kids. Their eyes pierced through the print. But there were smiles on many faces too, and they sadly made me smile. Thousands of war refugees trekked through the photos of desertification in East Africa’s largest refugee settlement, Dadaab. Beautiful yes, but the pictures show more than the history of a severely degraded region. I felt the most separated from the people and the place – the scenes seemed stereotypical and thus speaking to the lack of awareness museum-goers may have of the land’s severity. The photographs of Bangladesh underneath water from quick sea-level rise were vibrant and high contrast. The photographers captured a sort of natural flow between the environmental events and the adaptation of Bangladesh people. Despite the geography’s future, the people and places in these photos put the disaster into an odd, accepting perspective.

And of course, the photographs of the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina finished up the circular collection. The visuals many Americans may already have in the back of their minds about the New Orleans catastrophe are brought back to present consciousness. With all of the photographs in Unintended Journeys, comes an odd challenge to the onlookers to think about time in particular. Despite the exhibit’s smallness and thus, a perhaps unconsciously attached sense of unimportance, its size speaks to the difficulty in comprehending the tragedies that have all occurred within the last decade. Vivid in their visual development and storytelling, Unintended Journeys should be on the compass of more visitors. For its modesty, I believe, is what will make people take it to heart.

Unintended Journeys runs till August 13 at the Natural History Museum, most easily accessible from the Smithsonian Metro stop on the Blue and Orange lines.