Today, our last day of class went out with a bang as we visited the Royal Geographical Society. The RGS was my favorite institutional visit, partly because I had read a lot about Dr. David Livingstone and 19th century African exploration, but also because of the wonderfully rich presentation we were given concerning the “hot and cold” archive materials. The society began in 1830 with the purpose to “promote the advancement of geographical science” by providing for research expeditions, education, access to archives, lectures, and more. The materials that comprise the Royal Geographical Society’s archives fall into three main groups, scientific instruments entrusted to members of RGS expeditions, personal effects, and cultural objects collected by British explorers.
Our class was given an in depth look into some of the most important items in the RGS’s collections that deal with the exploration of Africa, Mt. Everest, the artic and Antarctic. Highlights of the showcase included maps, scientific instruments, and other items utilized by Dr. David Livingstone during his expeditions to find the source of the Nile in the mid 1800s. The portion of Livingstone’s artifact collection we saw contained his famous hat worn at the meeting between the doctor and Henry Stanley in Ujiji in 1871, a compass and hypsometer used during his expeditions, personal illustrations, and a section of the tree under which Stanley and Livingstone apparently met. Other personal highlights of the showcase included copper collars fastened to artic foxes released in 1848 by the crew of H.M.S. Enterprise engraved with the ship’s coordinates. The intention was that the collared foxes would be freed with hopes that members of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition through the last unnavigated area of the Northwest Passage might encounter one of the animals and make for the Enterprise. Unfortunately, this plan did not work.
Large portions of the RGS collection contain cultural objects found by British explorers during their expeditions. We were shown a pair of 19th century Inuit “sunglasses” used to prevent snow blindness in the artic circle. Recognizing the usefulness of such an item, the British admiralty subsequently created arctic eye protection based upon Inuit designs. This is a rare example of a willingness and successful attempt to apply knowledge observed from native cultures into British exploration until the 20th century. British explorers in cold climates, such as Robert Falcon Scott in his Antarctic expeditions, were unconvinced that dog sleds or skis were the most efficient way to travel through ice and snow despite their wide use in the arctic region. Perhaps this in one of the reasons why the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who embraced sleds, skiing, and dogs for transportation, beat the British to the South Pole in 1911.