Exploring the archives

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The Royal Geographical Society is undergoing a revamp that will bring its vast resources within the reach of teachers and students for the first time. Hilary Wilce reports

To most people, the Royal Geographical Society conjures up images of Victorian explorers and dusty collections of hand-carved tribal artefacts - and until recently they would have been right. But times are changing at the RGS, and fast.

A new airy glass extension is being built on the side of its impressive red-brick home in Kensington Gore as part of a push to unlock its priceless collection of books, maps and manuscripts to the public. Another part of this ground-breaking change is the development of two online education resources, which will make the society's unique range of historical source material and contemporary geographical contacts available to secondary teachers and pupils.

Unlocking the Archives, the first of these sites, will use the society's resources to explain and explore individual topics in depth. For its launch this spring, it will take a new look at the ascent of Mount Everest, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the mountain's conquest in 1953.

Worksheets will cover the physical challenge of the mountain and the history of man's attempts on it. These are likely to include pictures of climber Wynn Harris trying out primitive oxygen equipment in the 1930s, and explanations of intriguing facts, such as why mountaineers catch the "Khumbo cough" - a persistent dry cough caused by the cold, dry air, which can be so bad it causes broken ribs. There will also be a "tea room" where famous mountaineers may drop in for a chat, and interactive sections where pupils can contribute their own work.

Kate Geddes, the RGS's heritage education officer, says the new sites, along with other changes, amount to "a revolution in the way the society works. It's the biggest thing that has happened for years and years".

In the past, she says, visitors would have done well "to get through the doors" of the RGS, let alone find what they were looking for. Now its catalogues are being put online and the new teaching resources will open up all kinds of opportunities.

Unlocking the Archives will be closely tied to national curriculum targets.

For example, a study of Everest's "death zone" not only has links to several key stage 3 geography targets, but also to science and key skills targets. However, it is the site's authoritative command of authentic detail that will bring it to life. How many people know that more than 400 people were associated with the 1953 conquest of Everest, that seven and a half tons of equipment were carried, and that the 443 packages were numbered and itemised right down to the last matchbox?

Geddes knows that she is working with truly phenomenal resources - more than a million maps, miles of archive material and objects from the great days of exploration. These include food bags from Robert Scott's expedition to the South Pole, still smelling of curry powder, and the hats that Henry Morton Stanley and Dr David Livingstone took off to greet each other when they met in Africa.

The second topic will be more controversial, involving a look at the British Empire. It will include issues such as cultural imperialism and the slave trade, and draw links with contemporary issues. "We'll be presenting evidence and resources. We're not afraid to do things which are controversial," Geddes says.

Geography in the News, the RGS's other new online teaching resource, will tackle hot topics using contemporary sources to make sense of complex issues. Flooding, international migration and congestion charges are all in the pipeline. So too are proposed looks at worldwide water supplies and issues affecting rural Britain. The resource will primarily be geared toward those in the post-16 sector, such as A and AS-level students and International Baccalaureate pupils.

"Ninety-five per cent of geography teachers say they use news stories in the classroom, but we want to go beyond the media frenzy," says Jonathan Wolton, the RGS education resources officer. "I'm in contact with journals and researchers, and my job is to interpret up-to-date research and link it to topics in the news." He says the site, which is being piloted in 16 schools, aims to cover in depth 10 major topics a year, as well as "things as they crop up". There is also likely to be a review section and interactive forums with experts.

Unlocking the Archives is part of a wider RGS development funded in part by a lottery grant. Geography in the News has been sponsored by The Mercers' Company, which is donating pound;50,000 a year for three years. Both sites will develop flexibly according to what teachers say they need. Teams of advisers are helping to write them, and pilot responses will shape how they change and grow.

Geddes says one idea is to follow a contemporary expedition from start to finish, looking at its members' different roles and skills, such as team building and leadership. One thing is certain: with miles of archive material still to be examined and thousands of historic maps yet to be unfurled, the RGS's online education resources could carry on developing for centuries without ever needing to go over old ground.

For more information www.rgs.orgUnlocking the Archives Email: k.geddes@rgs.org Geography in the News Email: j.wolton@rgs.org

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