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.