To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy looks back on a different decade in its history by delving into its extensive archive of historical sources. This retrospective culminated in the publication of a booklet on the first 120 years of the Academy this summer.
In the early years of this decade, the British Academy was increasingly assuming its proper role as a national academy. It successfully hosted the International Historical Congress in 1913. The first volume in its major publishing series Records of the Social and Economic History of England and Wales – embarked upon as ‘a great national undertaking’ and now supported by a grant of £400 a year from the Treasury – appeared in 1914. And in that same year it initiated planning for a national (indeed, international) commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death to be held in 1916.
And then war engulfed Europe. The Treasury grant for the Records series was cancelled; so too were the Shakespeare celebrations. The grim realities of the conflict were brought home when the Academy was asked to help restore the great ancient library of Louvain which had been destroyed by fire early in the hostilities. And there were individual tragedies: the Revd J.H. Moulton would die on way his way back from India to deliver the Academy’s Schweich Lectures, when his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. A more trivial impact would be the disruption caused to the Academy’s first attempt at holding a dinner for Fellows in October 1917, with attendance reduced because of the fear of nightly air raids on London.
A significant quandary that arose from the war was how relations should be maintained with scholars in enemy countries. When Canon William Sanday presented a paper to the Academy in May 1918 advocating some rapprochement with leading German academics, it provoked public criticism for being premature. The British Academy’s official stance throughout was measured: it did not to expel its German and Austrian ‘Corresponding Fellows’. And in the aftermath of the war, although it bowed to a French initiative in 1919 to establish a new Union Académique Internationale (to replace the now defunct International Association of Academies), the Academy stressed: ‘We look forward to a time, and we hope it may not be a distant time, when all those who are concerned in the pursuit of human studies whatever their nationality, will be able to work in concord and mutual respect.’
Although the war had disrupted the Academy’s development as an institution, the closing stages of the conflict presented an opportunity for it to focus on a particular area of interest. As some of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East fell into the British sphere of influence, the Academy’s President, Frederic Kenyon (who was also Director of the British Museum), was eager that the Academy should take a leading role in placing on a more secure footing what he called ‘the Organization of Archaeology’. And in 1918-19, the Academy helped initiate the establishment of a British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem.
Kenyon’s predecessor as President, James Bryce, had delivered – in his address to the 1917 AGM – an astonishing personal survey of what he thought would be the scholarly trends across all the Academy’s disciplinary interests during ‘The Next Thirty Years’. But learning was rapidly becoming fragmented into specialisms, and this was recognised in 1919 when the four ‘Section’ subject groupings into which the Fellows of the British Academy had originally been sorted were reorganised into nine Sections, creating a structural skeleton that would evolve gradually over succeeding decades.
British International Research Institutes
Professor Charles Tripp, the British Academy’s Vice-President for the British International Research Institutes, discusses the important role of these institutions.
In 1918, the British Academy set up an organising committee to pursue the idea of a British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. By 1950, there were five ‘British Schools and Institutes’ conducting research in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They included two – the British School at Athens and the British School at Rome – that had been founded before the British Academy itself. It was at this point, however, that the Academy formally became the channel through which they received government funds, crucially supplementing the private endowments of the long-established organisations and providing financial security for the newer ones.
There are now eight ‘British International Research Institutes’ (BIRI) – research hubs forming a network of regional contacts and activities that covers the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and southern Europe, Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia. These independent organisations conduct research, collaborate with overseas and UK-based partners, run programmes of events and publications, and provide facilities, training and logistical support to visiting researchers. There is a particular focus on supporting the next generation of scholars and pioneering scholarship.
The BIRI have been a driving force for excellence in arts, humanities and social sciences research around the world for more than a century. They are renowned centres for the study of archaeology and have contributed to some of the most important discoveries about the history of humanity. Many current projects are focused on the management of cultural heritage and the role that the past plays in contemporary social and economic development.
They also manage projects that relate to the urgent and evolving priorities of the 21st century, including climate change, migration, and the organisation of water resources. For example, the ‘BIRI Sustainable Water Management Initiative’ is developing a multidisciplinary, inter-regional approach to sustainable water-management, which draws on rich local knowledge and historical experience.
During the pandemic, many of the BIRI have made good use of this difficult time to improve their buildings, refurbish their libraries and public spaces, and renew the facilities that they can offer to visiting scholars. Several have also forged ahead with digitising their rich historical archives for the benefit of UK-based and international research communities.
The British Academy is proud to be a longstanding supporter and major funder of these independent organisations, ensuring the long-term future of this vital network.
This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy