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When we think about the history of exploration, we often imagine it as the work of exceptional individuals in extraordinary circumstances. Men and women venturing forth on some incredible journey, surviving against all the odds - or perhaps being swallowed up, as Joseph Conrad once put it, by "the mystery their hearts were set on unveiling".

What we usually see is the individual explorers and their heroic deeds that come to mind. Other less visible aspects of this history, including explorers' dependence on local support and on intermediaries such as interpreters and guides, are often overlooked. In many different parts of the world, from the Arctic to Asia, and from Africa to the Americas, European explorers relied on local knowledge.

Research on the Collections of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), which include over two million maps, photographs, manuscripts, books and artefacts, offers a new perspective. Exploration has always been a fundamentally collective and shared experience. Sometimes hidden, sometimes visible, the role of locals and intermediaries in the history of exploration and travel deserves to be much better known.

This online exhibition draws on the AHRC-funded project Hidden Histories of Exploration by Professor Felix Driver and Dr Lowri Jones, which featured in a major exhibition at the Society in 2009. It contains images of exploration since 1800, alongside their original captions where available (indicated by the use of quotation marks). All are reproduced from the Society's Collections unless otherwise stated.


Note about captions

Within the Society’s Photographic Collection there are some historical images (and image titles or captions) which are recognised as containing unacceptable forms of language, or present image content that is considered inappropriate. In such cases, as part of its Collections policy, the Society maintains access to those images and descriptors as a source of context and information for researchers, recognising that the historical language used or image subjects in themselves do not reflect the Society’s contemporary position as an organisation wholly committed to principles of equality and diversity.

Tip: For the best experience, we recommend viewing the content below in full screen mode - press F11 on Windows (press F11 to exit) or Ctr+Cmd+F on OS X (Apple) to enter full screen mode.


The work of exploration

The Work of Exploration

Encounter and exploration

Encounter and Exploration

Recognition and responsibility

Recognition and Responsibility


We thank the following for their advice and support:

Jan Faull, British Film Institute; Peter Funnell, National Portrait Gallery; Cliff Pereira, workshop facilitator and consultant; Professor Jane M. Jacobs and Chandan Mahal, external consultants Rohail Ahmad, Noorjehan Barmania, Malcolm Brown, Harbakhsh Grewal, Tanzin Norbu, Steven Nyunt, Kuldip Powar and Jessie Rayat, participants in consultative workshops; Janet Turner and colleagues, Foyle Reading Room; Joe Madeira and Sally Stiff, design consultants.

Having trouble viewing this online exhibition?

Part 1: The Work of Exploration

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Part 2: Encounter and Exploration

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Part 3: Recognition and Responsibility

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Featured image:  'A Malay native from Batavia at Coepang' by Thomas Baines, 1856. © Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth