The 1990s

To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy will look back on a different decade in its history by delving into its extensive archive of historical sources. This retrospective will lead up to the publication of a booklet on the first 120 years of the Academy this summer.

For 25 years, the British Academy had increasingly been taking on the role of a Humanities Research Council. But there were many who thought that this was not the best way of maximising public funding for humanities research, and that it wasn’t in the best interests of the Academy either. Two reports issued early in the decade – one by the British Academy in 1990, one by the British Academy and the ESRC together in 1992 – recommended the establishment of a proper Humanities Research Council. But government was not persuaded. Therefore in 1994 the Academy set up its own Humanities Research Board (HRB) to run most of its publicly resourced research funding schemes.

This administrative move gave the Academy thinking space to reconsider its own role as a learned society. A first step was to review the framework of the Fellowship’s disciplinary groupings (Sections) – in particular to increase the representation and prominence of the social sciences within the Academy. As part of this rebalancing, a Section for Anthropology and Geography was added in 1994, and one for Psychology in 1999.

The Academy also sought to refresh its role as a forum for academic communication. A series of conversazioni was introduced to enable Fellows to meet and discuss issues of current interest. There were additions to the lecture programme, including an annual keynote lecture. And at the end of the decade there were the first examples of what would blossom into a programme of topical public events. A major development was the initiation of a programme of academic conferences, beginning with an event in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World. These conferences remain a key activity, and papers from them are published in the Proceedings of the British Academy series.

The Proceedings of the British Academy series publishes papers from the Academy’s programme of conferences.
The Proceedings of the British Academy series publishes papers from the Academy’s programme of conferences.

The year 1998 saw two developments that were crucial for the future of the British Academy. In March it moved into premises at Carlton House Terrace – a new home that would house the growing number of staff, and which would enable the Academy to host its new ambitious events programmes.

Front facade of 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, the headquarters of the British Academy
The British Academy moved into its new home at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace in March 1998.

And in the summer of 1998, the British Academy and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) finalised an agreement by which they would pool resources and establish an Arts and Humanities Research Board to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities – with the Academy contributing nearly £15 million for the postgraduate schemes. (This Board would subsequently become a fully constituted Arts and Humanities Research Council.)

In a new recognition of the importance of ‘outreach’ to the public, the first issue of a general readership magazine, the British Academy Review, appeared in 1999. Newly freed from an obligation to focus disproportionately on humanities activities, and with a splendid home in which to fulfil its ambitions, the British Academy could proclaim with confidence on the front cover of that magazine that it was now truly ‘the national academy for the humanities and social sciences’.

British Academy events

Professor Rana Mitter, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Public Engagement, discusses the wide range of events supported by the Academy.

The British Academy held its first Summer Showcase at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace in June 2018. Designed to complement the Royal Society’s long-standing Summer Science Exhibition and the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the free two-day festival brings to life research from the humanities and social sciences in creative and innovative ways. Through a competitive process, 12-15 researchers are selected to develop exhibits about their work that will enable meaningful engagement with the general public. Related talks and performances are programmed throughout. Almost 2000 people have visited the Showcase over the two days, including several hundred 14+ school and college pupils on a day tailored for them. After a pivot online during Covid, we are delighted to be once more hosting a live Showcase on 17-18 June 2022.

At an event held in May 2022, Professor David Olusoga received the President’s Medal from President of the British Academy, Professor Julia Black.

In many ways, the Showcase has been the culmination of a growing programme of events aimed at the public. A particular development during the Presidency of Sir David Cannadine (2017-21) was the expansion of our relationships with the major festivals in the UK, and beyond – including the Jaipur Literary Festival. The regionalising of our events programme has also continued, with the British Academy taking its historic programme of lectures on the road, in partnership with universities across the UK. Likewise, while a number of meetings continue to be held in our own building, the British Academy Conference scheme also funds those held at venues outside of London. And as a founding partner of the Being Human festival, we support hundreds of events each year all around the country.

The pandemic brought an abrupt halt to our programme of ‘in-person’ events, but we were quick to adapt – expanding our digital offerings to showcase the ideas of our disciplines and the people behind them. World-leading academics swapped the lectern for the virtual stage, taking part in a new series of 10-minute talks for YouTube, and in other discussions via Zoom. We held online events with organisations such as the British Museum. And the London Review Bookshop became a partner for our British Academy Book Prize in bringing together the shortlisted authors in an online event to talk about their books, all within the theme of global cultural understanding.

With building work beginning in our home at Carlton House Terrace to create event spaces with built-in digital capabilities, the future development of the British Academy’s events programme – whether in-person, online or both – is full of exciting potential.

This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.

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