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Archives ready for exploration

Opening a new display hall, Britain's Royal Geographic Society will make available to the public its collection of artifacts and records.

June 04, 2004|Jill Lawless | Associated Press

LONDON — There's Charles Darwin's sextant, Edmund Hillary's oxygen canister and Dr. Livingstone's hat.

They are among artifacts, available to the public for the first time, from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, the 174-year-old British institution that sent explorers to the South Pole, up Mount Everest and in search of the source of the Nile -- and amassed one of the world's largest geographical archives.

The London-based society will open next week an airy extension to its Victorian headquarters housing some 2 million records -- maps, charts, books and photographs.

Society director Rita Gardner said this week that the six-year, $13-million project had moved the documents from "Dickensian conditions" in the building's basement to climate-controlled rooms in the new wing.

Starting Tuesday, students, teachers, travelers and researchers will be able to search the society's archive online and go to a reading room to examine documents ranging from 15th century maps to photos and papers from the first Antarctic expeditions.

"People have died producing these charts," said Pen Hadow, a British explorer who has trekked to the North and South Poles. "It pricks the hair up on the back of your neck -- knowing that the hand that drew that map perhaps suffered frostbite because he overwintered in Antarctica."

Many of the society's artifacts are poignant reminders of an earlier age of exploration.

The archive contains the frayed peaked cap David Livingstone -- "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"-- was wearing when discovered by journalist Henry Morton Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871.

There's the hand-held sextant carried by Darwin on his ship the Beagle, a clunky oxygen canister from Hillary's 1953 ascent of Everest and the leather case carried by a member of Robert Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition.

Sensitive to the charge of cultural imperialism sometimes leveled at Victorian explorers, the new center defines its mission widely.

Gardner said its goal was to teach schoolchildren about history, citizenship and the "shared heritage" of all Britain's communities.

Within the collection are century-old images of life in Jamaica, Nepal and Iraq, and military maps and booklets prepared to help plan the D-day landings -- using Britons' prewar holiday snapshots of French seaside towns to help map the target areas.

Also among the collection are rusted chains that once shackled African slaves for transport -- brought to Britain by Livingstone and brandished by him during anti-slavery lectures in the 1860s.

Gardner said geography "is one of the subjects most relevant to understanding our modern world, its society and its environment."

The records also document a changing world. Comparing an 1887 chart of the Antarctic with recent maps reveals how the ice has retreated. The world also seems a smaller place than when Scott set out across the Antarctic ice.

But Hadow, who raised money for the Royal Geographical Society during an Antarctic expedition earlier this year, said explorers could play an important role in generating excitement about scientific discoveries.

"One of the roles of explorers has always been to go out, find information and bring it back to the widest audience possible ... to excite the wider world about what the scientists are doing," he said.

"[Discovering] the big detail is first base. Explorers now have to go in and fill in the details."

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