Thursday, 19 November 2009

Hidden Histories of Exploration

The Hidden Histories of Exploration exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) highlights the role of 'local' people in many of the great expeditions of the past. As Felix Driver, one of its researchers, has said "There's something about exploration which encourages an emphasis on the lone heroic explorer. We want to change the perspective and look at who the explorers depended on."

For example, naturalists such as Alfred Russel Wallace relied on indigenous collectors to gather materials in the field, the knowledge of native inhabitants was essential when making maps, while almost every kind of expedition relied on local manpower to cart equipment across deserts, up mountains etc. Even David Livingstone, perhaps the most famous of the 'lone travellers', had support while tramping around the jungles of Central Africa.

Exhibits include images of exploration since 1800 such as paintings by Thomas Baines (1820-1875), photographs, and documentary film footage from the 1922 Everest Expedition. The latter, in particular, provides a fascinating glimpse of Tibetan life, as well as shots of the climbers pretending to enjoy their yak butter tea. To make this film though, John Noel, needed eight Sherpas to assist him.

This idea of exploration being more than just the lone European explorer was something I tried to reflect in Those Who Dared. This was easier said than done with most reports usually concentrating on British adventurers. However, I did manage to find a few pieces such as a feature on Nain Singh, the famous pundit, from 1903. Pundits were native surveyors used by the British to map areas in the Himalaya, and particular Tibet, that were out of bounds to Europeans. Often disguised as traders, they would conceal sextants in specially designed secret pockets and hide their results in Tibetan Prayer wheels, which were supposed to contains strips of paper with prayers written on them.

The exhibition runs until December 10 2009. An interview with Felix Driver can be read here.

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