Next week the Royal Geographical Society opens its stunning new extension with a wealth of archive material. Hilary Wilce reports
Head south from Hyde Park down Exhibition Road, in Kensington, and your eye will immediately be caught by an inviting new building, its glass front subtly etched with geographical aerial views - the Bellalong Forest in Brunei; tracks in the sand in Oman; a weather system over Britain; the Manhattan skyline. From across the street the images blend together into one sinuous mural. Close-up, they provide a fascinating variety of landscape patterns. The Royal Geographical Society, long known as a gloomy, Victorian institution, whose red-brick frontage has glowered for more than 170 years alongside the Albert Hall, is throwing off the past and opening up its archives to the public. And to mark the change, an imaginative new extension is due to open on June 7.
Designed by prize-winning architects Studio Downey (glass etching by artist Eleanor Long), this light and enticing new centre will form the new main entrance to the society. It will have exhibition space on the ground floor, plus a 70-seat reading room and study rooms in a semi-basement below. The extension overlooks a courtyard planted with a "geographical" garden - temperate plants on the north-facing side, Mediterranean ones facing south.State-of-the-art storage space will keep its archives safe and accessible.
As a result, the public will have easy - and free - access to them for the first time in the society's history. At their fingertips will be an astonishing record of 500 years of global exploration. There are two million maps, thousands of valuable books, reports, photographs and journals, and priceless artefacts such as food bags from Scott's Antarctic exhibition, and Livingstone's watercolours of the Victoria Falls.
For teachers of geography, the pound;7m centre, three-quarters funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will offer opportunities for booked class visits to exhibitions, while specialist workshops and training on using the archives will be available from September. The society is also hoping that teachers will look at where the centre is based and see the potential of making a same-day visit to the neighbouring Science Museum or the Natural History Museum.
"What we want is to be a shop window for geography," says society director, Rita Gardner. "Nine million visitors a year go past here and we want to take full advantage of our location. The whole feel of the design is to be open and inviting, to draw people in - displays and exhibitions will be free."
She foresees the centre hosting sixth-form days and groups of students doing post-14 project work, and bringing topics alive for pupils studying history, geography and citizenship. "We've got such a great wealth of resources. We want them to be enthused by stories that can excite and inspire."
The archives include an abundance of material on late 19thearly 20th-century life in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia - parts of the world where many of today's schoolchildren's families come from. Pupils have already been able to enjoy trying on the 1950s oxygen tanks used in the first successful ascent of Everest. "They all said, `Oooh, aren't they heavy!'," says Rita Gardner.
The society is already boosting its educational profile, with two online projects, Geography in the News, and Unlocking the Archives. Geography in the News helps key stage 3-4 teachers explore subjects such as transport policies and international conflicts, and has 2,500 regular users.
Unlocking the Archives uses the society's resources to explore individual topics. It got going with a 50th anniversary look at the ascent of Everest and has turned its attention to the subject of the British Empire.
The society's expanded education team, all former teachers, work closely with schools to make sure that what it puts on these sites is directly relevant to teachers.
Despite all this, though, school geography remains in the doldrums, with the numbers taking GCSE and A-level continuing to go down. There are 20 per cent fewer students now taking GCSE than in 1995. Other subjects, such as psychology and media studies are luring them away. However, Rita Gardner sees hopeful signs. The society, she points out, is supporting the new OCR pilot geography GCSE, which combines general and vocational elements and allows students to opt for a short course. It has also welcomed the move to allow schools to become specialist humanities colleges, and is involved in discussions with the DfES and geography bodies about a revamp of the geography curriculum.
"I think we could see the results of this in about three years' time. But meanwhile things aren't all bad. You have to remember geography is still the most popular non-compulsory GCSE," she says.