Hidden Histories of Exploration
Submitting InstitutionRoyal Holloway, University of London
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Anthropology
History and Archaeology: Curatorial and Related Studies, Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
The history of exploration is central to public understanding of the
purpose and making of geographical knowledge. It is often imagined as the
work of exceptional individuals in extraordinary circumstances. Popular
portrayals of exploration have long been cast as heroic individual dramas,
in which the explorer is the central character. Historical geography
research at Royal Holloway has challenged this way of thinking. It has
emphasised exploration's wider cultural, economic and social significance,
showing it to be a fundamentally collective experience, and making visible
the vital roles played by local people and intermediaries. It has
demonstrated too how the collections of major UK scientific societies and
museums are shaped by and can communicate these histories of exploration.
The key impacts of the research are therefore on: (1) the cultural
understanding of geography and exploration, especially through public
exhibitions and their secondary reach; (2) the development of heritage
collections strategy in major institutions, notably at the Royal
Geographical Society (with IBG) (hereafter RGS-IBG).
These impacts are underpinned by Royal Holloway research led by Driver
(Lecturer to 1996, Reader 1996-9, Professor 1999-present), with colleagues
including Crang (see Section 3, Grant 5, Professor 2005-present), Gamble
(Grant 4, Professor 2004-11), Geoghegan (Grant 4, Post-Doctoral Fellow
2008-9), Jones (Grant 3, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant 2008-9), Martins
(Grant 2, Research Fellow 1999-2003) and Pereira (Grant 3; Honorary
Research Associate, 2010-13).
This research has three interrelated strands that have cumulatively: (a)
established new conceptual and methodological frameworks for approaching
exploration; (b) demonstrated the insights of a geographical approach to
collections and public science through a series of collaborations with
major UK museums and scientific societies; and (c) then applied these
approaches in uncovering the `hidden histories' of exploration present
within the internationally significant collections of the RGS-IBG.
(a) New approaches to the subject of exploration. This research
- The initiation and development of the idea of a `culture of
exploration'. This established a wider framework for understanding the
history of exploration and demonstrated the potential for new approaches
to its public and visual histories (see Section 3 Reference 1, Grants 1
- Revisionist research on explorers (including major national figures
such as Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone) and critical
appraisal of the role of biographical writing in the history of
exploration and the history of geography (Reference 2).
- Scholarly research into the comparative and visual histories of
tropical exploration and navigation, based on collections in UK,
Australia, USA and Brazil. This established the significance and
research potential of the visual archive of travel (References 3 &
4, Grant 2).
(b) A geographical approach to collections and public science.
Through research grants, collaborative research awards and partnerships,
teams led by Driver have worked with curators and other expert and
enthusiast communities in the British Library, National Maritime Museum,
Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, RGS-IBG, Royal Society,
Science Museum and the V&A Museum. These projects have developed and
demonstrated the insights of a geographical approach to collections and
public science. Key themes include:
- The interrelated histories of modern geography, exploration and
natural history (Grants 2, 6 & 7).
- Researching the geographical practices of collecting, organising and
circulating objects (e.g. Reference 5, Grant 5).
- Deploying such understanding to open up collections to new forms of
engagement. For example, Grant 4 researched the potential for mobilising
objects in museum stores by including enthusiast groups in the
curatorial practice of the Science Museum; and Grant 7 focused on
improving the public engagement programmes on economic botany of RBG Kew
and the Natural History Museum.
(c) The hidden histories of exploration in the RGS-IBG collections.
These two bodies of work were brought together in archival research at the
RGS-IBG, a global centre for the collection of information from explorers
about their travels (Grant 3). Through interpretation of visual and other
materials (including photographs, films, paintings, sketches and
associated documentation), this research analysed the agency of indigenous
peoples and intermediaries in the history of exploration and considered
their (in)visibility within the archive. Its findings were of three main
kinds: on the collective work of exploration (highlighting the dependence
of European explorers on local support, local knowledge and intermediaries
such as guides and interpreters); on images of exploration and its
encounters (showing how the RGS-IBG's visual archive could be read
`against the grain' to reveal its `hidden histories'); and on issues of
recognition and responsibility (reflecting on the extent to which the role
of locals and intermediaries were recognised by the RGS in relation to
wider debates over the ethics of exploration). These interpretive themes
were developed further through community consultations, in which
representatives of communities linked to these hidden histories provided
their perspectives on the materials. AHRC funding (see Grant 3) supported
this research and its dissemination, including through a major physical
and online exhibition at the RGS-IBG (Reference 6).
References to the research
(1) F. Driver, Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire
(2) F. Driver, 'Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904)' and 7 other entries
(2004), and a feature article on biography and exploration (`The active
life: the explorer as biographical subject' ), in the Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).
(3) F. Driver and L. Martins, `John Septimus Roe and the art of
navigation, c.1815-1830', History Workshop Journal 54 (2002),
144-61; reprinted in T Barringer, G Quilley and G Fordham (eds) Art
and the British Empire (Manchester University Press, 2007).
(4) F. Driver and L. Martins, eds, Tropical Visions in an Age of
Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
(5) F. Driver and S. Ashmore, `The mobile museum: collecting and
circulating Indian textiles in Victorian Britain', Victorian Studies
32 (2010) 353-85.
(6) F. Driver, `Hidden histories made visible? Reflections on a
geographical exhibition', Transactions of the Institute of British
Geographers 38 (2013) 420-35.
These publications were supported by the award of the following
peer-reviewed research grants:
(1) The Culture of Exploration, British Academy Research Leave
Grant, 1997 (Driver, £5,018)
(2) Knowing the Tropics: British Visions of the Tropical World,
AHRB Research Grant, 1999-2003 (Driver, £147,274).
(3) Hidden Histories of Exploration: Exhibiting Geographical
Collections, AHRC Museums, Galleries, Archives and Libraries (MGAL)
Research Grant, collaboration with RGS-IBG, 2008-9 (Driver, £168,799).
(4) The Cultures of Enthusiasm, ESRC Post-Doctoral Fellowship,
collaboration with Science Museum, 2008-9 (Geoghegan PDF & Gamble PI /
(5) Fashioning Diaspora Space: Textiles, Pattern and Cultural
Exchange Between Britain and South Asia, AHRC Research Grant,
collaboration with V&A Museum, 2007-10 (Crang PI & Driver CI,
(6) The Visual Culture of Exploration, Leverhulme Trust
Fellowship, 2010-13 (Driver, £162,858).
(7) Cultural Engagement Project: Re-enchanting Economic Botany,
AHRC, for collaboration with the Natural History Museum and RBG Kew,
2012-13 (Driver, £10,100).
Details of the impact
(1) Enhanced cultural understanding of geography and exploration.
The underpinning research suggested that innovative curation and
exhibition of the RGS-IBG collections could communicate a new, more
inclusive history of exploration, in which the contributions of a wider
range of people were recognised and valued than had traditionally been the
case. The impacts of the research were therefore pursued through a
strategy of public engagement comprising: an exhibition at the RGS-IBG
(October-December 2009); a website, with an online exhibition and related
research and educational resources (2009-present); a travelling
exhibition, available for hire from the RGS-IBG (2009-present); and
secondary reach through media coverage and additional public engagement
activity. The AHRC evaluated this work as outstanding — `a highly
effective project which has had a significantly greater public impact than
anticipated' — and presented it in the AHRC Annual Report and Accounts
2009-10 as a case study of `world class research and its impact'.
Exhibition at the RGS-IBG: 3,664 people visited over 40 days,
significant numbers for RGS-IBG exhibitions. Visitor feedback was
enthusiastic (examples: `Very moving. Thank you RGS for evoking a sense
of shared heritage', Janaki Venkat, India; `Thank you — from an English
70+ woman who did not know!'; `Fabulous job', Stephen Loring,
Smithsonian). More than 500 new users actively engaged with the
Society's collections during this period.
Website: A substantial, sustainable website was designed to
present the exhibition and other research and engagement materials, and
secured online within the RGS-IBG (www.hiddenhistories.rgs.org).
From its launch in October 2009 to July 2013, the site received 70,490
page views in 19,614 visits. Usage of the site was notably
international: 55% of visitors from beyond the UK, 40% from beyond the
English-speaking world, from a total of 132 countries. Dwell-times were
significantly above average for the RGS-IBG site.
Travelling Exhibition: Venues for the travelling exhibition
until July 2013 included a University Science Festival (2000 visitors,
2010), Kew Gardens Open House Day (1200 visitors, 2011) and the Royal
Engineers Museum (3442 visitors, 2013).
School Teaching Resources: To embed research findings in school
curricula, the project developed a suite of web-based teaching resources
(lesson plans, powerpoints, fact sheets, research resources, podcast
interview, film clips), targeted at KS4 (Geography) and KS5 (History)
teachers. The former centre the theme of `Exploring Everest', addressed
to GCSE specifications on extreme environments. The latter centre
`Exploring Africa', addressed to GCE specifications on the history of
the British Empire. These resources can be accessed from both the Hidden
Histories website and the RGS-IBG teaching resources webpage, the latter
averaging 40,000 direct hits per month. The resources were profiled in
RGS-IBG mailings to all 3,400 UK secondary school geography departments,
highlighted on the Historical Association website and promoted in
workshops with teachers / Ofsted inspectors for geography and history.
Media Coverage: The exhibition gained secondary reach through
media coverage that went beyond reportage to highlight key debates and
to disseminate exhibition materials. Extensive interviews appeared in The
Times (7 December 2009), Sunday Times (20 Sept 2009), The Guardian (8
Dec 2009), Times Higher Education (5 December 2009), BBC History
(October 2009), and Geographical (December 2009). The
Guardian, Telegraph and Geographical also produced online
image galleries using project research. The exhibition was discussed in
numerous podcasts, blogs and enthusiast websites worldwide from
perspectives ranging from popular histories of science (e.g. http://timetoeatthedogs.com)
to adventure journalism (e.g. http://thosewhodared.blogspot.co.uk/).
Other Public Engagement Activity: Diverse audiences were
directly engaged. 19 public talks/lectures were given in autumn 2009,
including one lecture attended by 520 people. Other activities included
two prisoner-led lectures in Brixton Prison, organised through the
Diversity Department; contributions to the RGS-IBG 2011 exhibition / web
materials on Rediscovering African Geographies; talks to KS5
school students in Black History month; and a Passenger Films discussion
event at the Roxy film-house London (c. 100 attendees).
(2) Heritage collections strategies.
The underpinning research has left lasting impacts on professional
heritage practice both within and beyond the RGS-IBG.
Within the RGS-IBG: The RGS-IBG is one of the world's best
known organisations devoted to the advancement of geographical
understanding. Its collections received Designated Status from the
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in recognition of their national
and international significance in extending `understanding of cultural
exchange and encounters around the world'. The curation of these
collections has been significantly enhanced by the Hidden Histories
project. In addition to infrastructural and documentation legacies, the
project contributed a new research-oriented model for the Society's
exhibitions and a reappraisal of underused parts of the collections
(notably film). Following the success of the project, the RGS-IBG has
developed its programme of collections-based research, for example by
supporting 5 Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDAs) and initiating an AHRC
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) with the Royal Society. The
project significantly enhanced interaction between RGS-IBG divisions
responsible for collections, research and public engagement, a
cross-divisional impact recognised by the Society as strategically
Other heritage institutions: Specific aspects of the research
at the RGS-IBG delivered new insights on exploration to other heritage
experts. This included: the identification of previously anonymous
indigenous people in artworks (reported to the National Portrait
Gallery); the discovery of watercolours by Catherine Frere (newly
exhibited in the 2013 British Museum exhibition, `Social fabric: African
textiles today'); and the first analysis of the 1922 film `Climbing
Mount Everest' (leading to a new research collaboration on expeditionary
film with the British Film Institute). More generally, the underpinning
research has helped to embed collaborative research and geographical
approaches within the ongoing curatorial practice of multiple
institutions. For example, Royal Holloway Geography initiated CDAs at
the Science Museum, collaborations that significantly influenced its
successful application for an AHRC CDP and the foundation of its new
Research and Public History Department in September 2012. On the basis
of his expertise in collections-based research and public engagement,
Driver was appointed advisor to the Natural History Museum's Centre for
Arts & Humanities Research and the Thames CDP Consortium (The
National Archives, National Portrait Gallery, National Maritime Museum).
4 Royal Holloway Geography PhD students have gained employment in
full-time collections-related positions at the British Library, RBG Kew,
National Maritime Museum and the Science Museum.
Sources to corroborate the impact
(1) AHRC Evaluations of Impact of Hidden Histories of Exploration
- AHRC evaluation of research grant final report: assessment letter,
- AHRC impact case study report, July 2011
- AHRC Research Performance and Impact Report, submitted to the
Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Oct 2011 (case study
- AHRC Annual Report and Accounts, 2009-10 (case study of `world class
research and its impact', pp. 8-9).
(2) Impact of Hidden Histories of Exploration project and exhibition
(3) Secondary Reach via Media Coverage
Online galleries produced by other agencies on the basis of the research:
Specimen press interview report:
Specimen blog interview:
- AHRC evaluations of impact: (1) AHRC Head of Communications; (2) AHRC
Head of Evaluation.
- Impact of the exhibition on public understanding of exploration, on
RGS-IBG strategy, and on schools teaching resources: RGS-IBG Head of
- Secondary reach into popular science media: Editor, Time to Eat
the Dogs: On Science, History and Exploration.
- Impact on collections-based research in museums sector: Head of
Research and Public History, Science Museum.