Thursday, June 16, 2022

Day 8 – The Royal Geographic Society Library and Archives

We returned to the South Kensington part of London on Monday to visit the Royal Geographic Society Library and Archive (see website). Its headquarters are in a listed building, which means it is of special architectural or historic interest considered to be of national importance and thus worth protecting.
Stanley's and Livingstone's hats
There are meeting rooms and a fairly new theatre/lecture hall, all near the library. The idea for the Society began in 1830 when it evolved from a gentleman’s club, the Rally Travelers, a group of men who wanted to advance geographical science and exploration. Our host librarian, Eugene Ray, explained that these founders wanted to sponsor and carry out expeditions to places not mapped by Europeans. As the Society gained influence, it was also able to create an academic discipline for geography, with departments and professorships.
An illustration of the famous meeting
Eugene had assembled an impressive array of items from the library’s collection to show us on a large table, impeccably labeled, while the exterior of the room was decorated by somber but imposing buts of explorers (Dr. Livingstone, I presume? and others). The library itself holds 2 million items, most of which are maps. The most interesting are unpublished sketches by some of the luminary explorers of the past or famous travelers such as Gertrude Bell. There are half a million photos and paintings, 150,000 books, and the rest are periodicals and artifacts, including scientific instruments, which when new and cutting edge, could be borrowed.
Eugene turned out to be a master storyteller, using the items on the table to tell us the story of historic explorations, some familiar and some not. We were fascinated by the story of Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, a British Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer, who survived the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812, as well as two expeditions to the Canadian Arctic, only to have his ships frozen off King William Island where he died in 1847. His father was a merchant but as one of twelve children, he turned to the navy to make a living. When he failed to return from his third expedition after two years, his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, persuaded the Admiralty to order a £20,000 reward. Unfortunately, no one from his party survived, due to factors such as lead poisoning in the food they had brought, weather conditions, and perhaps cannibalism. Franklin was remembered as a hero, despite leading his crew to their deaths, and there is a memorial to him at Westminster Abbey. The reward was claimed by the man who found his body.
Shackleton drew a map on a menu
As Eugene dramatically described the search for the Nile, we were in awe at seeing the very hats worn by Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone when they met near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. The other item that most impressed me was Ernest Shackleton’s balaclava, made by Burberry, which got its start as an outdoor clothing company. Looking at these brave men, driven by a fascination for exploration I do not understand, I couldn’t help thinking how much modern clothing and boots would have improved the effectiveness of their travels by enabling them to endure extreme weather conditions.
Shackleton's balaclava
In the afternoon, we went our separate ways and I set off for the Museum of London, which traces the origins of the city from those people living in the Lower Thames Valley from around 450,000 BC to the Romans in AD 50 and on to the present day. I probably spent too much time admiring Roman finds (some of which were retrieved by mudlarkers) but I had really come for the Great Fire of London in 1666 exhibit, which recreates it very effectively. I was reminded of my 8th or 9th grade presentation on the Black Death (which preceded the fire) in which I flung pepper at my classmates to replicate disease, annoying them all very much, as I read to them from Anya Seton’s Katherine. My favorite item that I saw was a platter honoring Elizabeth I, which is inscribed, “The rose is red the leaves are grene God save Elizabeth our queene, 1600.” I ran out of time during the Blitz, so to speak, while listening to survivor accounts, sort of like being in a history class that hasn’t made it past WWII by mid-June.
Next stop was meeting Nicky Smith back in Marylebone for an early dinner before going to see Legally Blonde at the open-air theatre at nearby Regent’s Park. It’s an exuberant musical in the tradition of Hairspray and was funny, if not deeply memorable. The setting was appealing as the sun set and we were in total darkness except for the stage and very energetic cast. The audience was young and clearly big fans of the movie. I liked that the music went on playing as the audience headed for home through the park.
Miles walked: 5.0


Cath said...

Very envious that you got to go to the Royal Geographic Society Library. Suspect I might be happy spending the rest of my life in there! We loved The Museum of London too.

Jeannike said...

I hope you won't be offended if I ask you to please never come home! I look forward to reading your wonderful daily reports and I savor each one! Thank you very much for taking us along on your library adventure!

CLM said...

Ha! It is very tempting to stay but London rents are even worse than NYC where I used to live! Several times our host librarians were late because their long commutes into the city got delayed and it is obvious they cannot afford to live closer. Although one guy told me the new Elizabeth train line was going to cut 20-30 minutes off his commute. In good weather, he rides his bicycle but I have never understood why someone would want to be hot and sweaty all day.

LyzzyBee said...

Oh, is the Great Fire of London exhibit still the diorama that lights up as someone reads from Pepys' Diary? I remember he says "I slipped on my underclothes" which always made me giggle, even though I last saw it as a teen. It's probably fancier now.