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Using new media, National Geographic tells the story of Christ's tomb

21 Nov 2017 – By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In the modern-age, news about Jesus doesn’t just sell newspapers, it racks up page views, too.

In 2016, when renovations around the site believed to protect the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem were underway, religious leaders agreed to the temporary removal of the marble slab covering the tomb so that restorers could install a moisture barrier to protect it. It would mark the first opening of the space in perhaps centuries.

A team from National Geographic, which had been at the site to document the restoration, was allowed, during a relatively short window of time, to document the opening of tomb, in words, photos and video. National Geographic noted the interest by the number of clicks on the story and images the team posted about those 60 hours, which appeared on its website, not its iconic magazine, because of its immediacy.

“There was this incredible response to the news story in October (of 2016),” said Kathryn Keane, vice president of exhibitions for National Geographic during a Nov. 9 interview with Catholic News Service.

More than 3 million viewers worldwide flocked to the National Geographic website to read the news documenting the removal of the slabs and to see photos that included images of broken marble around the tomb inscribed with a Christian cross.

“It was one of the highest-rated stories of the year for us,” said Keane. “We got a sense from that, that there would be a lot of interest in this story.”

Though the tomb of Christ had never been featured in the pages of National Geographic, the magazine’s iconic yellow frame this December features a Rembrandt painting depicting the face of Jesus on its cover, along with an accompanying story about what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus.

The organization also had previously published the book “In the Footsteps of Jesus,” which is now being sold in paperback at its store. National Geographic also will debut a documentary Dec. 3 on its cable channel about the restoration work at the tomb, and recently opened its “Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience” virtual exhibit, which uses 3-D and VR, virtual reality, technology to provide visitors to its Washington museum a different way to visit the tomb.

“We have for many years been taking people on journeys to places that they may never get to visit,” said Keane, and with new technology, there are new ways to do that.

“We have many ways to tell a story,” said National Geographic archaeologist-in-residence Fred Hiebert. “The exhibition is a chance to walk into Jerusalem and into the church itself, the magazine article is mainly about the larger context of the footsteps of Jesus, we have a book about that, too, with maps, great storytelling, very historical ... we do the whole story.”

The opportunity to present the story of the tomb arrived when officials from the Greek Orthodox Church asked National Geographic if it would be interested in covering the restoration. The Greek Orthodox, along with the Armenians and the Franciscans, share stewardship of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the main structure over the smaller shrine, called the Edicule (Latin for “little house”), covering the tomb.

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