It’s not strictly speaking ‘art’, this one, but worth a mention nonetheless – a new exhibition of maps, photographs and other materials from the Royal Geographical Society archives, all of which helped to shape the ways in which we know (or think we know) Africa today.
The RGS-IBG is a professional body whose goal is to ‘advance geography and support its practitioners in the UK and across the world’. Ongoing debate about the role it should take in part reflects the society’s dual origins – the Royal Geographical Society started as a gentlemen’s dining club in the 1830s, while the Institute of British Geographers was formed in 1933 as a more academically-minded sister society. The two merged in 1995, but some of the old divisions have risen to the surface lately, with a split developing between those who want to focus on competitively funded research projects, and those who want the society to reinstate its own major overseas expeditions into the ‘unknown’. Despite victory for the former camp, exploration enthusiasts continue to agitate for RGS expeditions through the Beagle Campaign.
This might sound like a petty argument between crusty old academics, on the one hand, and gung-ho ex-boy-scouts on the other, but there’s certainly more to it than that, not least the RGS’s struggle to come to terms with its own difficult past. As the website explains, ‘the history of the Society was closely allied for many of its earlier years with “colonial” exploration in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the polar regions, and central Asia especially.’ Exactly what was “colonial” about these activities – rather than simply colonial – remains unclear, but there are clearly awkward mutterings going on in some quarters, as the framing of Rediscovering African Geographies shows. The exhibition promises to reveal the untold story of African contributions to the Society’s expeditions, and has been designed from ‘an African perspective’, thanks to the involvement of various community partners. Is this a step in the right direction, or simply the reflection of a guilty conscience? Either way, old maps are always fascinating, so I look forward to finding out.
22nd March – 28th April
The Pavillion, Royal Geographical Society
1 Kensington Gore, London