The Royal Geographical Society

The Royal Geographical Society first captured my imagination when I read The Lost City of Z by David Grann. In this exciting work of non-fiction, Grann seeks to learn the fate of the famous explorer, Colonel Percy Fawcett, who was instrumental to the efforts to map the Xingu region of the Amazon, but went missing during his final expedition, on which he hoped to find evidence of the advanced civilization that he believed existed or had once existed somewhere in the Amazon rainforest.

I was intrigued not only by Fawcett’s story, but also by the whole narrative of this new age of explorers at the end of the nineteenth century, when brave souls set out on dangerous adventures into the unknown for the sole purpose of finding out what was there. There was no guarantee that they would return home safely; they had to know that, in many cases, it was highly unlikely that they would return home at all. Yet still they set out, ever optimistic, to map the world.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out that I would get to visit the Royal Geographical Society,where I would learn more about this illustrious organization and the incredible people who were part of it.





The collection owned by the Royal Geographical Society is immense, including about two million items. About half of them are maps, fitting for an organization dedicated to mapping the world. It also includes half a million images, stunning representations of the strange new worlds discovered by the RGS explorers. The RGS also has a great many books, periodicals, notes, correspondences, and other text items. The most impressive part to me, however, was the artefact collection. In addition to scientific instruments owned by the RGS and loaned to explorers for use on their voyages, there are fascinating personal effects, such as Dr. Livingstone’s hat, and cultural objects belonging to peoples met during expeditions.

Examples of a variety of these holdings were displayed for us in a “Hot and Cold Showcase,” which uses artefacts to help narrate stories of the RGS, divided between the “hot” and “cold” regions. During this showcase, we learned stories of the explorations of Africa and the quest for the long-sought Northwest Passage, as well as attempts to climb Mount Everest – one of the most exciting sets of stories I’ve heard on this trip. Those stories, however, could provide fodder for a series of very exciting books, so I will leave them for another time.

The Royal Geographical Society archives house not only the history of the RGS itself, but also that of the discipline of geography as a whole, an area of study that gained its place in the world through the accomplishments of a few daring explorers.


Middle Temple

For someone whose entire knowledge of the British legal system is derived from the television adaptation of Rumpole of the Bailey, a visit to the Middle Temple library was quite a revelation. I knew that tradition was valued to a certain extent, as seen in the wigs and robes, but this visit proved that there was much more to it.

Anyone wishing to attempt to become a barrister must first join one of the four Inns of Court: Lincoln’s, Gray’s, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple. Each of the Inns of court has its own coat of arms. Lincoln’s Inn has a lion, Grey’s has a griffin, Middle Temple a lamb, and Inner Temple a winged horse.


“London-Inns-of-Court” by Marc Baronnet – Marc Baronnet. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

In order to join an Inn of Court, candidates must attend twelve sessions, called “dinners” at the Inn of their choice. Though the Inns of Court are intended for barristers, this is a difficult feat that few accomplish. In fact, there have been a lot of people who have joined the Inns of Court for the benefits and connections to be had there, rather than through any real intent to become barristers; Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker, for example, did this very thing.

All of the Inns of Court have long histories. The Inner and Middle Temple get their name from the headquarters of the Knights Templar, known as the Temple. When the Templars fell out of favor, this paved the way for the barristers to move in, and they are there still.

Each of the Inns of Court has its own library. The Middle Temple Law Library proved very resilient, surviving both the Great Fire and both of the World Wars, but sadly, the structure was so weakened by the bombing that it had to be pulled down and rebuilt. Today it is actively used as a functional law library for the Middle Temple barristers. It keeps copies of every edition of every law textbook, among other law books. The books are not classified, but rather are divided into large sections, in which they are arranged alphabetically by author. This organization system prevents shelf browsing from being an effective method of use, but every item held by the library is catalogued and can be located on an online database. There is no remote access to databases available, but computer access within the library is completely free and open, with no logins needed.

No mention of the Middle Temple would be complete without some mention of the Middle Temple Hall. Built in 1570, this hall is used for official functions and dinners. The double hammerbeam roof in the hall is very unusual; it would have been much more expensive than a single hammerbeam, but the added strength allowed the room to be built on a larger scale. During the time of Elizabeth I, this would have been quite a lively building. The long oak table donated by Elizabeth herself was ideal for feasting, where entertainment would be provided by the minstrels and musicians who were on the payroll of the Inn. On at least one occasion there was even more notable entertainment provided: the first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was held in this very room. This tradition of hospitality continued on into the modern day. One of the Inn’s royal benchers, the Queen Mother, enjoyed visits to the Middle Temple Inn quite often, and was a great favorite there.


John Murray Archive – National Library of Scotland

After reading The Seven Lives of John Murray before leaving for London, I became a little bit obsessed with the story of the John Murray publishing dynasty; I was thrilled to learn that we would be visiting the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland. There are a lot of interesting aspects to its history, starting with the publishing house itself. It was begun in 1768 by John Murray I, a Scot who moved to London to seek his fortune. It was passed down through seven generations of John Murrays, moving early on from its first home on Fleet Street to its famous location on Albemarle Street, until it was finally sold 242 years later. It was the longest-lived privately-owned publishing house in the world, a feat which had become more and more difficult over the years as business changed with the times.

John Murray Fleet Street

The original home of John Murray Publishing on Fleet Street in London.

One of the most colorful characters in the Murray history came during the time of John Murray II: Lord Byron would prove to be not only one of John Murray’s most popular authors, but also a close friend of John Murray II. The letters between them have been a rich resource for Byron biographers as well as historians of the John Murray dynasty and publishing history. In addition to the many poems written by Lord Byron during his short life, John Murray had an opportunity to bring yet another Byron work to the public, but that manuscript met a mysterious end. Shortly after Byron’s death, there was some dispute over Byron’s memoirs, which he had instructed to be published posthumously. However, they were considered so scandalous by the few who had read them, that a small group, including John Murray II, met in John Murray headquarters on Albemarle Street to discuss the situation. The memoirs were burned in the drawing-room fireplace in order to protect Byron’s memory. One can only guess at the contents.

After the sale of the publishing house, John Murray VII insisted that the famous and priceless Murray archives should not go along with the rest. Instead, it should go to a special collection where it could benefit many people. Therefore, in 2002, part of the John Murray archive was donated to the National Library of Scotland. In 2006, the NLS bought part of it for 31.3 million pounds. Though this is a large sum that NLS needed a great deal of support to raise, it is a mere fraction of the actual value of the John Murray archives. In addition to that, the money raised from the sale went into a charity trust for the upkeep of the John Murray collection, the NLS, and others.

The four million items of the John Murray Archive are a great draw – they are exhibited so as to engage visitors with the stories of John Murray and the famous authors published by them. As well as the ever-popular Lord Byron, Dr. Livingstone, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley are popular characters, among many others. Some items are displayed in the NLS, while at times others go on tour or out on loan to other locations.

At the NLS, most items are in storage, but there are always some on display, with an interactive tablet program to help engage the viewer. Authentic artefacts combine with contemporary set pieces in large glass cases, where John Murray treasures are displayed in specially lighted and climate controlled conditions, where they can be carefully protected. They are very careful to preserve the items in the collection, but not at the expense of destroying accessibility. There is even a reconstruction of the infamous fireplace where Byron’s memoirs were burned, complete with bookshelves stocked with period copies of John Murray books for the public’s perusal. Though the original furnishings from the famous Albemarle Street residence are still in their original location, in Edinburgh they try their best to recreate the feeling of being in the legendary drawing room. They seek to draw people in with the perfect balance of history and drama, which is fitting, really, when you’re talking about a collection in which so many different cultural threads intersect.

London Archaeological Archives & Research Center (LAARC)

The London Archaeological Archives & Research Center (LAARC) is the third building in the Museum of London group. While the Museum of London itself serves as the face for this organization, providing exhibits on the history and archaeology of London for visitors to view, much of the work involved is done behind the scenes here, at this work and storage center.

The Museum of London Archaeology is involved in all excavations that take place in London, and sometimes further afield as well. Any materials that are found come back to LAARC, where they are processed by the thirty-five specialists who work there. Though a few items, such as designer clothes, are purchased, many items are donated; they will take anything that was used in London and that they do not already have an example of; everything is catalogued by accession number. They work with anything dating from prehistory to the Second World War. Therefore, they have ended up with quite a large variety of items. We saw saint badges, ancient ice skates, a brick from the Great Fire, and even a boot found in one of Shakespeare’s theatres.


Boot, contemporary with Shakespeare, LAARC.

Objects aren’t the only things that LAARC specializes in. They also make plans of old buildings that are being taken down so that they can be reconstructed later. They are also using oral history to gather information about some objects in the archive, such as machinery, that was used by people who are still living and able to explain how it worked and what it was used for.

The British Library

I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the British Library. Large, of course, and obviously full of books, but what else? I think I had visions of something with at least a facade of age; you think of very old books being in very old buildings (at least I do), and when I think of the British Library, my mind goes straight to very old books.

There are definitely very old books there, as is clearly broadcast by the huge glass tower right in the middle, which houses the collection of George III. The six-story glass tower is a concession to the king’s requirement that his library be on display and available for public use at all times. This founding collection is interesting not only because of its size (85,000 items) and beautiful bindings; it includes books in sixteen languages. This started a precedent in the British Library, which now holds the largest collection of foreign language materials in the world.

"BritishLibraryInterior02". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“BritishLibraryInterior02”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Aside from these books, however, everything in sight upon entering the British Library is modern. The newness is a bit shocking in contrast to all of the age and history of those books and the treasures that are famously housed here. Everything about this building is thoroughly modern. Thirty-five million items in this vast collection are housed in the largest underground complex in Europe, that goes down seventy-five feet beneath the library. A system of machines and conveyor belts brings requested items swiftly up to the surface, where they can be distributed to researchers in subject-specific reading rooms. This efficiency is necessary, as the library gets about 4,000 book requests a day. For those items too delicate or valuable for reader use, the library has cameras that can make photographs of up to sixty million pixels of the items – high res enough for anything you might need. Some of these are available online already. If not, the library can take them for you.

It was incredible to see how such a huge library works, but to me, the really exciting thing was the Treasure Room. Exactly what it sounds like, the Treasure Room is a dimly lit area where some of the most valuable and popular items owned by the library are held. One of the most exciting items for me was the Beowulf manuscript. Gazing at one of the founding works of English literature was incredible. To make it even better, they connected it to the present by placing beside it a page from the manuscript of Seamus Heaney’s translation. Seeing the handwriting of the recently deceased poet right beside that of an anonymous scribe from centuries earlier was a very moving tribute to the life of the written word. The Anglo-Saxons saw power in words – in fact, the Old English word “wyrd,” from which the modern “word” derived, has undertones of power and magic, hence the “wyrd sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons were onto something. After all, there is no surer way to be sure that your name will be remembered than through words.