Running Hot and Cold at the Royal Geographical Society

At the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore, librarian Eugene met us in the lobby and gave a well-organized and highly informative presentation on the historical stories the RGS library holds in its collection. Cannily, he told us tales of two explorations, one near the sweltering equator, the other at the South Pole. He got into the library business studying English, not geography, and maybe that was revealed in his narrative expertise.

The Society was established in 1830, during the golden age of British exploration, to promote scientific geography, and now holds some 250,000 books, 4,000 atlases, half a million images (mostly photographs) and thousands of objects. Those include the hat worn by journalist Harry Stanley and the worn-out boots and pith helmet worn by the trekker Dr. David Livingstone, the two men brought together by fate in deepest Africa.

We sat around a large table in the Foyle Reading Room filled with those kind of fascinating items, with one side of the table lined with objects telling the story of Stanley and Livingstone in Africa during the age of exploration, the other about the frustrating, often fatal race to the South Pole, Antarctica, in the early part of the 20th century. A “hot” side and a “cold” side, he joked.

The personalities came to life under the expert tale-telling, strengthened by the immediacy of the original items before us.

The race to the South Pole was launched by a conference in 1895 in London. Like Africa before it, the South Pole had an unknown blank at its heart. The Society raised money for an expedition, and the government eventually provided matching funds. We heard of the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton, who found a passage onto the polar plateau but ultimately was stopped short of the South Pole, and of commander Robert Scott, seen as aloof but who gained heroism when he died in his second failed race to the South Pole, beaten to his goal by the man credited by Eugene as being the best explorer of all, Roald Amundsen. The Norwegian reached the South Pole in December 1911, and one of his travel secrets–let’s just say it involves dog meat. As for the blank in the map, it turned out to be full of ice.

The Society has some fascinating photos preserved from that trek, showing the frozen tundra, and the dogs and humans who made the trek, including a haunting picture of Shackleton and his crew after the attempt in 1909, all left looking like on the tail-end of a 10-day bender. We also saw one-of-a-kind items like “The South Pole Times,” a journal of sorts full of poems and cartoons used to wile away the days when it was too bitter to work. Scott, who always carried a Bible, was shown as a parson complete with hat. His Bible, which he discarded on his second doomed expedition as an example to his men, was kept and later returned to the Royal Geographical Society.

Eugene graphically explained why a “sextant” (an instrument of celestial navigation) at the South Pole would have handles made of ivory and not brass. Because metal would stick to your skin at those temperatures and take it off if you tried to pull back. 

Besides expected sets of maps and globes, an enormous collection of current travel books to every conceivable destination lining the reading room walls. The collection also contains tangentially related objects, like a wooden bust of Henry Stanley. I was intrigued by a photograph of an African guide for English explorers smiling, unembarrassed by his rotten teeth. Why does no one in 19th-century photographs ever smile (exposure times, or perhaps bad teeth)?

The RGS often sends out to other museums the popular Stanley and Livingstone hats and shoes and other items, like the “artificial horizon,” which used any available pool of water and a little geometry to make the sextants work even when the sky is not visible (as in dense wilderness or built-up areas).

The librarian gave us a little glimpse into historical revisionism, when he noted that in Livingstone’s diary, he was captured as preoccupied with his quest for the source of the Nile River, and was unimpressed with the Lake Victoria waterfalls. But when it came time to write a book his first view had been retro-conned into being awe-inspiring. Also, we only have journalist Stanley’s word that his greeting to the trekker was, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Some of Stanley’s relevant diary pages had disappeared.

For a long time the map of Africa in general (and the location of the source of the Nile specifically) was largely blank, with filigrees of detail around the edges on the more well-explored coasts. The explorers filled in the center, writing the map as they went. Sadly, Dr. Livingstone never found the source of the Nile. It is now generally considered to be Lake Victoria (discovered by the troubled adventurer — is there any other kind? — John Hanning Speke, rival to Richard Burton).

When the explorer Livingstone died in Africa, his remains were brought back by his friends save his heart, which remained on the continent he loved. He lay in state at the Royal Geographical Society.

RGS is credited for encouraging the establishment of geography as a separate discipline. We were told how the library was trying to shake the perception of a stuffy middle-class clubbiness and appeal to other groups in the community. There are less than ten on staff of the library itself, which is open to scholars and researchers; the general public has to pay a fee of 10 pounds. I wish I could have seen one more room, but evidently they outsource many tasks like conservation (except for minor things like book-spine repair) and so there wasn’t other additional work to see.

He explained that some items are just too fragile to be lent out to other libraries, but their operating philosophy is to lend out when they can, because they want the objects seen, after making sure the other library or museum is sufficiently insured. In Great Britain it’s known as “government indemnity insurance.”

Speaking of fragile items, he explained his wearing of protective gloves. Many of the librarians and archivists we’ve talked to on our trip have eschewed them, because they don’t provide enough feel and make you clumsy among the delicate materials). For books he agrees with the new conventional wisdom, but for items the gloves were needed.

With superior story-telling matched with poignant items, the Royal Geographical Society was a highlight visit for me. A careful study of the maps drawn by actual explorers even helped me fill in a few weak spots in my own general knowledge.

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