Royal Geographic Society expeditions

In 1980, in his foreword to the book celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), Sir David Attenborough described the men whose names adorn the society’s walls Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, Armstrong, Fiennes as ‘the great heroes of exploration’. These men filled in the blanks on the maps and were followed by those who observed, measured, surveyed, sketched and collected until no substantial part of the Earth’s land surface remained unmapped.

Sir David, himself an RGS gold-medal holder,  says, with remarkable prescience: ‘But now the shape of a landscape is known, the need is to discover exactly what animals and plants live on it, what rocks it is made of and what are the processes that are continuing to shape it. That work requires the skills of a multitude of specialists and so the society has been sending out a new kind of expedition made up of a large group of scientists.’ The RGS hasn’t mounted an important exhibition for more than 10 years, an omission about which its fellows will protest.
I was fortunate to be invited to lead one of those new multi-disciplinary expeditions in 1977–78 to Mulu in Sarawak, Malaysia. The pioneering work done by the 115 scientists who came and went during 15 months in the field, researching every aspect of the richest environment on Earth, has often been cited as the trigger of global concern for rainforests.  

Over the next 20 years, 10 more major expeditions were sent out by the society, investigating regions as diverse as the Arabian desert, the savannahs of Africa and Australia and a vast coral reef in the Indian Ocean. The largest of all was more rainforest research, this time to the Amazon, for more than four years, with 300-plus participants and led by the then director of the RGS, John Hemming. All these expeditions were run from the RGS, and produced invaluable scientific research. They all broke even or made a profit, and added immeasurably to scientific knowledge and the reputation of the society. More university and private expeditions and research projects were funded by RGS grants in the 1980s than ever before or since.

However, there have been no more major RGS expeditions since Dr Hemming retired in 1996, and many fellows regard this as a great pity. The concentration on the academic elements of geography, important as they are, has diminished the society. Many of us believe that it’s time for the RGS to start organising its own major multidisciplinary expeditions again, which is why a resolution is being put to a special general meeting on May 18.  It may be the only opportunity for fellows to vote on this very important issue.

To find out more about the campaign, visit Anyone can pledge support, but only fellows can vote on the resolution.

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The RGS has issued its own statement: visit Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s most recent book is ‘The Seventy Great Journeys in History’. His next is ‘The Great Explorers’, out in 2010 (Thames & Hudson)