'I've been clear from the beginning that we need to respect our traditions, but look to the future. The Society is open. We're a community of professional geographers, young members and geography enthusiasts who all make important and complementary contributions. We want everyone to feel welcome here.'
The planned transformation of the old library into a comfortable new room with Wi-Fi access for members and their guests at the Society's Grade II*-listed headquarters, Lowther Lodge, reflects director Dr Rita Gardner's ambition 'to fit this organisation for the 21st century'.
Since taking on the role in 1996, Gardner has succeeded in more than doubling the organisation's annual turnover and securing some 17 million [pounds sterling] in additional funding; most visibly through Unlocking the Archives, a major project that saw the Society open the doors to its rich resources.
'I felt we had huge potential to popularise geography and build on our history as one of the world's most vibrant geographical organisations,' she recalls. 'The Society was poised for change. To be part of that transition was something couldn't resist.'
Sitting at the table where David Livingstone worked out the geographical records of his missionary travels in Africa, Gardner is adamant that the Society's knowledge, held not only within its archives but also by the wealth of fascinating individuals connected to it, should be shared with the widest possible audience.
Before accepting 'the best job in geography', she was already a passionate advocate for learning and discovery. An accomplished geomorphologist who led major field-research projects in some of the world's most remote and challenging environments, she had also served as a young Fellow on the Society's Council, set up the Society's regional programme and was the first woman to hold the post of honorary secretary.
'I knew the Society well, and they recognised my energy and commitment,' she says. 'The first few years were daunting, but I'm more daunted now by how successful we've been and the pressure that puts on the team. Our greatest strength is our broad appeal. The RGS-IBG is about research and higher education, scientific expeditions and fieldwork, education in schools, policy and public engagement. We're guided by the Society's strategy and we're never short of ideas; the biggest challenge is finding the resources to implement them.
'The support of our membership is invaluable,' she continues. 'People join the RGS-IBG for a variety of reasons, but a uniting factor is that most believe that we do a great job advancing and promoting geography and they want to give something back. They see that we have a real role to play in presenting different perspectives, inspiring people and being known as a source of reliable, unbiased information for audiences from all walks of life.
'Our president, Michael Palin, is a fantastic example,' she says. 'He's someone who really cares about the Society and he will, I'm convinced, bring greater recognition for geography by championing it with young people and through forthcoming projects such as Britain from the Air, which we hope will connect people in the UK with their built and natural environments in new ways.
'The Society has always believed that people of all ages should be encouraged to get outdoors and investigate the world around them, whether that's through field research and scientific expeditions, informed travel, adventure or an exploration of their local area,' Gardner says. 'Geography is about the interactions between people, places and environments, so when it comes to dealing with critical global issues such as climate change, migration, flooding and environmental degradation, I passionately believe that geographical understanding can help us become better citizens and guardians of our planet's future.'
Member of the Atlantic Rising team, which received the Society and Land Rover's 2009 'Go Beyond' bursary to undertake a 12-month journey following the 100-metre predicted sea-level rise of the Atlantic
'ALL THE WAY along our route, people have stopped us in the street or jogged alongside our Land Rover in traffic jams, wanting to talk about the Society. …