Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Royal Geographic Society (July 27)

I hadn't been sure what to expect of our visit to the Royal Geographic Society, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were led by Eugene Rae, the Librarian of the Society, through various parts of the Society's house, library and history.
The RGS originated in 1830, and was originally located in facilities on Saville Road, only moving to its current location in 1870. As the society has grown, so has its buildings, with an extension in 1929 (including a theater for its ongoing lecture series) and a new reading room and reorganization in 2004.
Even those who are clueless when it comes to maps and geography may be familiar with one particular member (and current president) of the RGS: Michael Palin, former Python and lifelong avid traveller.
Anyone who is interested in the field of Geography is invited to become a member of the RGS. Even if you are not a member, you may come in and use the library and its reading room. According to Mr. Rae, library users include "Academics, members of the Society, writers, artists, those interested in family research [though not very many, because there's not much paperwork for most members, just the more illustrious ones]...Anyone at all, really." In fact, because of the type of funding recieved to build the 2004 extensions, the RGS not only is very open to the public coming in and using the society's facilities, but also they are required to reach certain numbers of people within a set period of time.
What else was entailed by the 2004 renovations and extensions? Instead of many different somewhat independent departments (one for maps, another for books, a third for get the idea), all of the former departments are sharing the same space and "working in harmony," learning a little bit of everything so that they can all do at least the basics of each department. "And that's good, because we can all take holidays now."
How many materials are in the RGS' collections? In total, 2 million; this breaks down to approximately more than a million maps (unsurprisingly, one of the largest map collections in the world); half a million images (everything from photographs to postcards, lantern slides, glass negatives, paintings, watercolors, etc.); 250,000 books and periodicals; and a lot of correspondence, expedition plans, the special collections, and other archival materials. Oh, and the RGS also has a collection of 1500 artifact objects, which are not museum items --the Society does not want to be viewed as backwards-looking, but instead always looking to the next horizon-- to be specific, as our guide was, the artifacts are Research Objects.
What Research Objects do the collections contain? David Livingstone's hat which he was wearing at the infamous meeting with Henry Morton Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"). Funnily enough, they also have Stanley's hat that he was wearing on the same occasion. They also have the rather worn-our shoes that Stanley was wearing when he made his journey of 999 days following the Congo river to prove that the Nile did not come from Lake Victoria (as Livingstone had thought). Other objects vary, from the boot that had belonged to one of the first climbers of Mt. Everest in the '20s, who was found once again (frozen solid) in the '90s, to other items associated with various explorations, successful and/or fatal. The greatest irony of all is that since many of these items are iconic and have often been borrowed by various world institutions for exhibitions, many of them have traveled even more and farther than their original owners did.

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