The Royal Geographical Society was created in 1830 as a bit of a gentlemen’s club. Members would get together, eat dinner, and debate and discuss issues concerning geography and exploration. Its goal was to promote the advancement of geographical science. In the 180 years since its founding, the goal of the society has not changed. But, now there is a larger focus on research, publishing, and the physical collection the society maintains. The society’s collection is housed on site and maintained by the library there.
The collection is open to the public for a cost of ten pounds, but educational users and members get in for free. In 2004 the collection was reorganized and the Reading Room was opened. Originally, there were four different collections with four different catalogs, now everything is in one catalog, which is also online. The library has over 2 million items onsite; this includes around 1 million maps, half a million photos, 1,500 objects, and a quarter of a million books and periodicals.
We had the opportunity to see some of the society’s more impressive catalog items. When the society was created in 1830 there was a great deal of interest in finding the Northwest Passage. Many of its members attempted to find this passage and brought back items from their adventures. One of the most interesting items we were shown was a can of meat from the ship named the HMS Resolute. The Resolute was commissioned to explore the artic but got stuck in the ice and was abandoned. It eventually broke free and was found by an American ship. The Americans returned the ship to England, and it was eventually decommissioned. Wood from the ship was then used to make at least three desks one of which was given to the President of the United States. The Resolute desk has been used by almost every president since, and to this day it still sits in the Oval Office.
The Society has many items from both arctic and Antarctic explorations including supply lists, different styles of sunglasses, magazines printed on board different ships, a bible, and even a pair of Inuit boots. But, the society also has item and materials from places other than the Arctic and Antarctic. There are sketch maps drawn by Lawrence of Arabia, Charles Darwin’s pocket sexton and a number of maps and photos searching for the source of the Nile in Africa.