The Explorers

(Photo courtesy of The Explorer’s Club)

A 1620s table from the Prince of Portugal; one of only twelve 1727 bishop’s chairs to leave Westminster Abbey; a hatch from The Explorer, one of only seven ships to survive the sinking in Pearl Harbor; and Theodore Roosevelt’s personal family slides. These items only scratch the surface of the massive historical collection that lies beyond the wrought iron gates of the Explorers Club.

Founded in New York City in 1904, the Explorers Club promotes the exploration of land, sea, air and space. Located at 46 East 70th Street in what was the private residence of the Clark family, the club supports scientific research and education that form a sound history of exploration.

Theodore Janulis is the club’s current president, but executive director and member Will Roseman knows just about every secret within the walls.

“The building represents a lot of what we do and who we are,” says Roseman, adding that the Clarks were the founders of Singer sewing machine and sold the building in 1965. “The artifacts in the building are entwined in the club’s actual history, which includes one of the greatest art collections in the world. The Clarks incorporated a lot of international effects such as wood paneling from 1580s England, a chair from the Dowager Empress of China and the very first photographs ever taken in the arctic.”

The Explorers Club is an international organization and an offshoot of the original Arctic Club, which began in the 1870s. Now including 3,300 members throughout the world and more than 30 national and international chapters, the Manhattan headquarters serves as home base and is open to the public on a daily basis. People can view the exhibits and attend Monday night lectures, which have run uninterrupted since 1932.

“We’re about documenting history, accomplishment and achievement. You really have to do some form of exploration to be a member here,” says Roseman. “You can’t just be a traveler or have interest in exploration. We strictly define exploration without science and knowledge as adventure and adventure for us is sport.”

An overwhelming number of members are conservationists and environmentalists, including many from the fields of aeronautics, anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, ecology, oceanography, paleontology, physics and zoology. Explorer Bob Hemm has been on more than 30 flag expeditions, including sky diving, mountain climbing and cave diving. Among his many accolades, Hemm is a documentary filmmaker, author, pilot, deep-water diver and skydiver.

“I have a degree in business and three years of industrial engineering,” says Hemm, who has been a member for 25 years. “I have traveled to Easter Island, Switzerland and Morocco, to name a few places.”

The private compound of King Mohammed VI of Morocco in Tan Tan visited by Bob Hemm on an expedition.
The private compound of King Mohammed VI of Morocco in Tan Tan visited by Bob Hemm on an expedition.

Hemm was the expedition leader for Magellan’s Lost Fleet, a History Channel production that centered on Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s ship the Santiago, which was wrecked off the Patagonian coast in 1521.

Proud of its explorers, both past and present, the club displays a plaque in the lobby showing that Explorers Club members were first to the North and South Pole, The summit of Mount Everest, the first to the Marianas Trench and the first to the surface of the moon. An open space has been left for the first person to walk on Mars.

There are two levels to the club: members and fellows, the latter of whom has been published. Those interested in becoming a member must fill out an application and include two letters of sponsorship from current members or fellows and a documentation of participation in field expeditions sponsored by a recognized scientific organization. Preparing for an expedition is also a process, one which can take anywhere from eight months to five years of planning. As for research, the club has more than 14,000 books throughout the building, some dating back to the Crusades. 

“The explorers choose where they travel to and we provide support where we can. Research is critical in writing an objective and raising money for your exploration,” says Roseman, noting that many explorers come from an educational background and don’t have a surplus of money to spend. “Great science is found on a shoe string, oftentimes at little expense.”

Roseman was a bush pilot in the Congo, which is how he earned his membership.
He has an impressive display of signed miniature flags in his office from the likes
of John Glenn, Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, who have left their mark upon visiting the club.

The wall of Explorer’s Club presidents graces the second floor landing.
The wall of Explorer’s Club presidents graces the second floor landing.

If the club’s history, wall hangings and stories of past members seem to be predominantly male in nature, that’s because women were not allowed in until 1981. Marine biologists Sylvia Earle and Rita Matthews, zoologist Dian Fossey, geologist and a former NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan and Anna Roosevelt are some of the women who proudly earned their spots.

The Explorers Club flag is the hallmark of every expedition and carrying a flag is considered not only an honor, but a privilege. Red represents bravery, white is purity and blue symbolizes fidelity. There are currently 202 flags, each with their own story.

“We’ve had expeditions where we’ve gone to retrieve flags that were lost,” says Roseman, noting that members go on about 600 expeditions per year, but only 50 or 60 qualify to carry an explorers club flag. “Teamwork and relying on your companions really transcends what we do and the club is a fascinating place; it’s a great secret.”

Steeped in rich history, the Explorers Club is about preserving the past and making a mark on the future, a ceremonial tradition that will continue for years to come.