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Raleigh Ashlin Skelton ( 1906-1970 )

Scholar of the history of cartography, Raleigh Ashlin Skelton was an expert on antique maps. Born in Plymouth, England in 1906, his interest in the history of exploration and discovery was inspired by his ancestors, including the colonist Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald W. Skelton, the chief engineer and official photographer of the 1901 expedition to Antarctica. Nicknamed “Peter” by his friends and colleagues, Skelton studied French and German at Pembroke College, Cambridge University. In 1931 he became Assistant Keeper in the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum.

During World War II, Skelton served with the Royal Artillery in the Middle East and Italy. In early 1945 he was assigned to the MFAA in Austria. In June 1945 he investigated the contents of Stift Hohenfurth (Vyšší Brod, the thirteenth-century Cistercian monastery), located near the Austrian border with the Czech Republic. At the beginning of World War II, the monastery had been used by Adolf Hitler as a storage depot for looted treasures destined for his planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, including the Mannheimer collection of Austria, the coin collections of the monasteries of Upper Austria, and furniture belonging to Alfons and Louis Rothschild of Vienna.

While the majority of the monastery’s contents had been evacuated in late 1944 to the salt mine at Altaussee, many objects still remained at the time of Skelton’s arrival, including eighty pieces of Rothschild furniture and over one hundred German paintings and sculptures. After interviewing the repository’s German caretaker, Skelton filed a report that led to subsequent inspections by the MFAA. As a result of his investigative work, these objects were transferred to the Munich Central Collecting Point and ultimately turned over to the Austrian government in 1947. The Rothschild family of Vienna would not recover all of their objects from the Austrian government until 1998, part of a long history of denial by the Austrian government of its complicity in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.

Following his service with the MFAA, Skelton returned home and resumed work at the British Museum. In 1950 he was promoted to Superintendent of the Map Room. During the next two decades, he expanded the reach and reputation of the Map Room into a world-renowned historical and geographical archive. He secured the return of the atlases of the King’s Maritime Collection, which had been on loan to the Admiralty since 1844, as well as several other prominent acquisitions. As a result of Skelton’s innovation, the Map Room soon became one of the few libraries in the world with a published map catalogue and an open-access cartographical reference collection, which attracted geographers and historians from around the world. Skelton also established a permanent space for the display of maps at the British Museum, which he filled with a series of successful exhibitions on the history of discovery and exploration.

Skelton established himself as the leading authority in the field of cartography. He spoke at the International Geographical Congresses in Lisbon in 1949, Washington, D.C. in 1952, and Stockholm in 1960. At the 1964 Congress held in London, he organized one of the first symposiums on the history of cartography. Due to its success, he was invited to organize subsequent international conferences in London in 1967, Brussels in 1969, Edinburgh in 1971, and Warsaw in 1973. His international reputation earned him invitations to lecture at universities around the world, including Harvard University, the University of Kansas, Yale University, and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1968.

Skelton was Chairman of the Commission on Ancient Maps of the International Geographical Union, Honorary Secretary of Hakluyt Society, President of the Surrey Archaeological Society, Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians and the Royal Historical Society, and a member of the Institute of British Geographers and the Royal Commonwealth Society. He was the recipient of the 1966 Research Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and both the 1956 Gill Memorial Award and the 1970 Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. In addition to his work as editor of Imago Mundi, a journal on the history of cartography, Skelton’s extensive bibliography includes essays, articles, and books on English voyages, famous explorers, early atlases of Scotland and the British Isles, among countless other subjects pertaining to the history of exploration and discovery.

In 1967, Skelton retired from the British Museum in order to devote all of his time to research and writing. Tragically, a car crash while on the way to a meeting of the Ordnance Survey would cut short that dream. Skelton died a few days later on December 7, 1970.