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The role of instruments in exploration: the RGS and its explorers, c.1830–1900

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The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830, and, from the beginning, instruments were to be involved in its undertakings. These ‘instruments’ have been defined by the actors: they were for measuring and drawing; commensurate with the earlier category of ‘mathematical’. A way of approaching their role is to consider what they embodied, how they were mobilised and what agency they exerted. Embodiment would include the knowledge and resources involved in their production, the mathematical principles they assumed, the discipline involved in their management by the RGS , and the spirit of modernism that is inherent in them. Their mobilisation would look at specifics of when, where and by whom they were used, what particular instruments were selected in what circumstances, and the difficulties with transport and standardisation. Their agency would focus on the practices they impose, the hierarchies they establish, and the ‘othering’ of native inhabitants to which they contribute, as well as the physical results of their use. The paper will argue that instruments played a crucial role in establishing the ‘explorer’ and the ‘field’ during the mid-19th century, and continued to maintain the authority of Western values after that time.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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