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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 June, 2004, 20:05 GMT 21:05 UK
Explorers' archives opened to all
By Carolyn Fry

Tenzing and Hillary on Everest, RGS
Tenzing and Hillary's successful climb was supported by the RGS

For 174 years, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) has been the hallowed repository for items documenting feats of exploration.

Explorers such as Edmund Hillary, Thor Heyerdahl and Chris Bonington left behind souvenirs for the Society; and so the basement of the Society's Kensington headquarters has slowly filled up with maps, photographs, journals and objects from all corners of the globe.

Now, the RGS is opening up its entire collection of two million items to the public for the very first time.

Next week, following a 7.1m project to digitally catalogue its archives, the Society will officially open a new storage facility and study centre. Anyone will be able to peruse an index over the internet and request access to items of interest.

"We've spent the last six years raising money and we're now in a position to throw the doors to those collections open to the public," said the Society's director Dr Rita Gardner.

"They tell many stories; all the great names of exploration history are there."

Everest ascent

Some of the earliest items are maps of the world, including two produced by Dutch cartographers in 1608 and 1648. The earlier map does not show Australia as a separate landmass, whereas the later one does, a legacy of the pioneering voyages of explorer Abel Tasman.

More recent items include documents relating to the first ascent of Everest, including pencil outlines of Edmund Hillary's feet drawn to show what size boots he needed and receipts "signed" with the thumbprints of Sherpas.

Of topical interest are reports containing holiday snaps of the beaches of Normandy used by the government to help plan the D-Day landings.

Everyone should have the opportunity to understand the world in which they live and the impact of their lives upon it
Dr Rita Gardner, RGS director
Having previously been distributed in many rooms over five floors, the archives have now taken up residence in a new modern, glazed extension.

Beside the environmentally controlled storage rooms, there is an exhibition area, educational facilities and a 70-seat reading room, all with full disabled access. The extension was designed by architects Studio Downie to reflect the opening up of the Society.

Whereas once visitors entered the building through a heavy black door at its imposing front entrance on Kensington Gore, they are now welcomed into a light, airy glass-sided modern entrance hall.

"We had the opportunity to be innovative," said Dr Gardner. "We wanted to open up the Society visually as well as physically."

Exotic ingredients

The Society hopes the changes will help it shrug off its somewhat dusty image. It was formed in 1830 as an offshoot of the Raleigh Travellers Club. This was a dining club whose members were all travellers.

At fortnightly meetings members would take turn to prepare meals made from ingredients from the countries they had recently visited. At one such dinner, members put forward the idea for a new society, dedicated to geography, and the Geographical Society was born.

It later gained royal patronage and in 1913 bought its current building for the princely sum of 100,000. An extension in 1930 was the last major building work until the Unlocking The Archives Project began.

Charles Darwin's pocket sextant, RGS
Charles Darwin carried his sextant on his evolution voyages
All kinds of people are expected to make use of the new facilities. Access is free for anyone in education and teachers can sign up for class workshops and make use of online learning resources on themes of geography, history and citizenship.

Everyone else can access the internet catalogues for free but will have to pay a fee of 10 to access the reading room.

"You might be a GCSE student, a scholar or someone who's thinking of going to Tanzania for their next holiday," said Dr Gardner.

"If you want to understand about global warming you can look at maps showing the extent of glaciers. We've got maps from years ago right the way through to maps that came in yesterday."

The Heritage Lottery Fund supplied 75% of funding for the latest project with the rest coming from private donations and charitable trusts. In keeping with the Society's spirit of exploration, Pen Hadow and Simon Murray raised 235,000 by walking from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole.

The money went specifically towards digitally cataloguing some of the most valuable items in the polar collection.

"Explorers have always been about finding information and bringing it back," said Hadow.

"Some have even given up their lives just to produce a map. But knowledge is partly a function of how many people know about it.

"The people who gave their lives will be thrilled that the Society has had the energy and vision to turn itself inside out. They will be turning in their graves with a smile on their faces today."

The new facilities will open on Tuesday, 8 June. Opening times: 1000 to 1700 BST Monday to Friday excluding Bank Holidays. The free online catalogue is available at www.rgs.org/collections

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"A new 7m study centre, allowing public access to an extraordinary collection of artefacts"

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