Highlights of the Year

This is my first Anniversary Address as President and I do not want to simply rehearse the information published in our annual report which has been circulated to Fellows. Despite the continuing impact of the Pandemic, the Society has continued to operate as best it could. It is also well worth highlighting the level of Grants and Awards that have been made – £237,175 (research) and £17,500 (conservation).

I would also like to draw your attention to the work of our Library and Collections team which has included fundamental progress on the digitization of our archives ­– including our early Minute Books – as well as significant progress on the bar-coding of our library books and the introduction of library cards. Furthermore, the new Collections catalogue ‘Collections Online’ has been launched providing integrated access to our library, archives and collections catalogues. This represents an enormous amount of work and is key to the future use of these key resources.

We have also seen the launch of our first Digital Exhibition – an innovative on-line project. The first exhibition ‘Henry VIII – defender of the faith’ co-curated by Maurice Howard and John Cooper has attracted a large audience. Importantly the architecture developed, can be adapted for other similar projects.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the successful re-opening of Kelsmcott Manor. As noted earlier in the meeting we held a wonderful event on 24 March to mark the re-opening of KM. The success of this builds on the great efforts of the KM staff especially Gavin Williams and Kathy Haslam. It is also notable how, having secured £4.3 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund the Society has also raised an additional £1.3 million in match funding with the help of the Kelmscott Manor Campaign Group, under the Chairmanship of Martin Levy along with: Geoffrey Bond, Philippa Glanville, Jack Hanbury-Tenison, Alan Lovell, Janie Money, Sandy Nairne, Cherry Peurifoy and the late Claire Donovan. Thanks to all for your hard work and for helping us make this project such a success! I’d also a special thanks to Dominic Wallis whose efforts as Head of Development lie behind this success.

Finally in looking back over the last year, I would note that in July Council received an important report from the Working Party on Equalities & Diversity that had been established by my predecessor. Council accepted the report and its proposals, and has established a ­new Fellowship Committee – which first met in January this year – to carry forward this agenda in the context of the broader support of the Fellowship.

Current Issues and Challenges

I would now like to turn to the present. The first issue concerns our lease here at Burlington House. This has been discussed in several previous Anniversary Addresses. The dispute has deep roots and resolving it is a long drawn-out process, and one on which it is difficult to report fully as the negotiation has to remain confidential. It has been slow in getting responses from Government, and equally complex and slow has been the process of agreeing a common position with our colleagues in the other Learned Societies around the courtyard. As you will be aware, since November 2020 we have engaged in a highly successful campaign to build political support. The work at Westminster has been co-ordinated by our Fellow Tim Loughton MP (aided by our advisors, AprilSix, and especially Vernon Hunte). We are extremely grateful to Tim and to all the members of both Houses of Parliament who have championed our cause. They held a Westminster Hall debate in June 2021. In responding to this debate the Minister, Eddie Hughes MP, went on record saying: ‘We have heard the real financial concerns of the five learned societies, and the issue has received significant media coverage…. we [MHCLG] are determined to try to keep the learned societies at Burlington House.”

The depth of parliamentary support and its political effectiveness are remarkable. After a series of exchanges and meetings with civil servants, the Learned Societies have now responded in detail to our landlords (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) presenting our own proposals for an affordable and sustainable lease, and including an outline plan for the further opening-up of our collections to a wider public. We had requested a meeting between MPs and Society representatives on one side, and Civil Servants and the Secretary of State (Michael Gove) on the other, in order discuss our proposal face-to-face. We heard last week that this request has been agreed, and we now await a date in Mr Gove’s diary. I hope that we may be reaching the end-game…but we have been through cycles of optimism and dejection before.

Second, I must mention our financial deficit. The Treasurer’s Report has explained our current financial position, but it is not always easy to distinguish the effects of short term factors like Covid and the Kelmscott project from longer-term trends. Katy Drake – our Head of Finance and Resources – has worked through the figures in detail and in February presented Finance Committee with an analysis which makes sobering reading, indicating a significant underlying deficit. Given the current economic climate and increasing inflation, the Society is going to have to take action to address this. There remain a number of uncertainties, not least the issue of our lease, and we will need to explore a number of avenues of increasing income and cutting costs, but this can only be tackled in medium term in the broader context of strategic planning to which I will return in a moment.

Third I wish to mention the war in Ukraine. The broader global context and troubled times in which we live have an impact on all of us. But the effects of events on us is nothing compared to the horrors that the War in Ukraine is having on its people. Just after the Russian invasion, the Society issued a statement condemning it and calling for the protection of civilians and cultural property. We are all, I think, frustrated by our inability to do much to help in this terrible situation. I have however been in discussion with our Fellow Ian Riddler who has close personal links with Ukraine and we are actively exploring how we can support Ukrainian academics and their families. As a symbol of support a Ukrainian flag will soon be flying over, and Ian has nominated Aleksandra Miklukhina, a student at Kyiv, as the first member of our new Affiliate Membership scheme. To make a more substantial contribution we are also actively exploring support for a scheme developed by the Royal Historical Society and others designed to provide financial support to allow Ukrainian academics to spend a period in the UK or an EU country – We will be including information on how Fellows can make donations for this in SALON later in May. This is a small contribution but one that I hope Fellows will be keen to support.

Planning Our Future

It is all too easy for us to focus on short-term issues and defer discussion of the long-term future of the Society until after the problem of the Burlington House lease is resolved. I do not think this is sustainable. Whatever happens about our lease and where we have our headquarters, we will need to raise significant funds, and to do this we need a clear and relevant strategy. The key issue is how best a Learned Society comprising a Fellowship can develop its role as a Charity for public benefit.

I believe that the Covid-19 pandemic and current world events will probably have a long-term structural impact on society analogous to the effects of the World Wars in the 20th century – if not perhaps on the same scale. We have all become used to digital technology for meetings and lectures, and in the Society we have seen the positive benefits of this – broad participation – alongside the negative – fewer in-person interactions and small audiences at Burlington House. With this in mind – alongside the financial challenges noted above – we are embarking upon a Strategic Review which will consider what shape our Society will take for the middle of the 21st century. We intend to work on this during the second half of 2022 with the aim of producing a 5–10 year plan which sets high level objectives that will guide policy. In the preparation of this, the Society needs to have a wide and fundamental discussion about its role and its activities, as well as its relationships with other organisations in the sector. In particular, we need to think about nature of the Society as something much a broader than narrowly archaeological organisations, whilst also acknowledging the changed landscape with the development of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the rejuvenation of the Council for British Archaeology and the development of the Heritage Alliance. Alongside such developments, we will also need to think about the gradual decline in the scale and influence of other societies (eg the Royal Archaeological Institute and some of the County Societies). Surely a key area must be the development of more collaborative working and joint initiatives. Duplication of effort and competition for influence, audiences and resources is pointless.

In preparation for this review I propose that the Society consider the following issues:

  1. Can we better articulate what Fellowship means so that we can continue to attract people to become Fellows (not least in the context of the launch of our Affiliate Membership scheme)?

I begin by saying “Ask not what your Society can do for you—ask what you can do for your Society” (with apologies to JFK). Fellowship is not simply membership, and it should not be seen as transactional in the sense of ‘what do receive for my subscription’. It implies a joint commitment to our shared interests and the promotion and support of our charitable objectives. In this context we need to explore the long-term value of the Society’s contribution and its assets (library, collections etc) to our disciplines and to society at large. This will also involve some re-thinking of how we engage and involve the Fellowship in delivering our charitable objectives.

We must nonetheless also review what is currently offered to the Fellowship for their subscriptions, and take a hard look at whether this meets current needs. This will require a better understanding of the views of our Fellowship – hence a proper survey, collecting views on the full range of the Society’s current activities to form a sound basis for future planning. This will need to collect views on the full range of the Society’s current activities. For instance, attendance at Ordinary Meetings suggests that meeting on Thursdays at 5pm no longer meet the needs of many Fellows, but such meetings are at the centre of our current governance practices.

  1. We need to think about perceptions of the Society and how to improve them.

If we are to thrive in the future, we need to become more diverse and to better reflect the composition of our disciplines and society at large. Some useful insights are given by discussions with Fellows, communications from those who have resigned, and the feedback from the Head Hunters’ (Saxton Bamfylde) discussions with candidates for the job of General Secretary.

If we are to make a real difference to perceptions – and this will take time – we will need to have a sustained plan of action which demonstrates our values and assess how far they align with the broader values of society. This should not only help us improve the delivery of our charitable activities, but also feed back into strengthening and broadening our Fellowship.

  1. We need to consider the size of the Fellowship.

There are three aspects of this: (1) our long-term financial sustainability and hence our ability to deliver our our objectives with a Fellowship at the current size (c. 3000); (2) our ability to involve and serve the full range of our academic disciplines given the growth in the broad heritage sector as well as the academy over recent decades; and (3) the balance between the size of the Fellowship and the number within the new category of Affiliate Members.

I am personally in favour of increasing the size of the Fellowship to reflect the size of our community. But I must also emphasise that retaining a high level of qualification for Fellowship is vital. Qualification for election under our statutes requires that the candidate “is distinguished in the fields of archaeology, architectural or art history, or other antiquarian subject matters across the academic, charitable, heritage and private sectors”. We need to attract people to the Fellowship from across this broad range and especially those who are active and at the cutting edge of research. This means looking out for up-and-coming scholars and practitioners. From a personal perspective, I would note that I was elected to the Society at the age of 29, and a number of contemporaries were elected at a similar age. We must understand that being “distinguished” does not equate with being old, and I would urge all Fellows seek look out early career people to nominate so that we can continue to be an effective and relevant organization.

  1. We need to review and reform how election to the Fellowship is organized.

The present system of nomination by existing fellows, involves the completion of a ‘Blue Paper’, its publication (by being read at an Ordinary meeting and then ‘suspended’), prior to a ballot. This is cumbersome. Its shortcomings are illustrated by the low numbers of Fellows making nominations, whilst numbers of new fellows elected at any one time is also constrained by the number of physical ballot boxes we have for in-person voting and the number of ballot meetings that we can fit into our meeting programme. Furthermore, this mode of election does not allow the Society to act strategically in recruitment or to broaden its reach.

The current system has evolved from the a long-established paper-based system that served a much small organization in a different era. Our objective must be to retain a high standard of qualification for election to the Fellowship, but the present system as it has evolved is arguably no longer fit for purpose and should evolve. Some thoughtful modernization of the system would benefit us all without ‘diluting the brand.’

I hope and believe that as Fellows of an active and thoughtful Learned Society, you will all engage in the debate on these issues and help us move forward into our 316th year as a stronger and more relevant organisation.

I would now like to formally introduce our new General Secretary, Andrew Macdonald.  Andrew has joined us this week having previously held a series of strategic and management roles in the Heritage sector, most recently at the Museum of the Home. Before that he worked in the media, holding senior roles at Channel 4 news. Welcome to the Society!

Finally I would like to thank the staff of the Society for their continued excellent work on our behalf, and my fellow officers, Stephen Dunmore, Heather Sebire and John Cooper who have been a great support in my first year as President.

Martin Millett

April 2022