A few thoughts about the RSA past and future - part 1


Like 'ironic' and 'unique', 'incongruous'  is a terribly overused word. Nevertheless, I am going to claim it for the sight of a blotchy middle aged Englishman lying in the grounds of a Cretan water park reading a history of the first 200 years of the RSA, 1754 to 1954.    

I should say' re-reading' as I rifled through the book in my first weeks in post. But this was a more careful reading from which various thoughts and themes emerged.  The book is by Derek Hudson and a previous long standing Secretary Kenneth W Luckhurst.

As you would expect from an in-house history to celebrate a bicentenary, the book has a self congratulatory tone. It is also of its time in its unashamedly patriotic post-war tone:

The book concludes:

'It is one hopes, not too presumptuous to see something peculiarly English in such an institution as this. The Society has been English in its pride of standing on its own feet, English in the sense of compromise and adaptability. Like England it has had its ups and downs. its anomalies and non-sequiturs. Like England it has somehow survived, and in the process has contributed to the progress of mankind. Certainly the life of every Englishman now living has in some degree been affected by the operations of the Society' 

This last claim reminded me of how hard it is to ascribe historical responsibility. As an organisation that has always been on the look out for solutions to emerging problems or perspectives on the next big thing, the RSA can often claim to have been the originator of an idea or an institution which went on to be of great significance. By the same token it is often the case that while the Society got there first, that which it began would inevitably have occurred presently by some other route. To take one example,  next year sees the 250th anniversary of the first public art exhibition to be held in Britain; organised and hosted by the Society in its original home in the Strand.

We are thinking of how we might commemorate the anniversary of the exhibition next March. But while we can be rightly proud of our role in this innovation no one could seriously argue that if the RSA had not intervened the practice of exhibiting paintings to he public would never have developed in this country (after all the first art exhibition in Europe occurred in Paris nearly a 100 years earlier). A similar point could be made about many other RSA  achievements ranging from the establishment of the Royal College of Music, to the development of vocational examinations or the popularising of a whole variety of technological innovations.

The historical significance of the Society's contribution lies less in doing it first than in how it did it. This is a more complex question. Proving we started something is relatively straightforward, proving that the way we innovated was better than alternative routes is much more difficult and involves the possibility that the Society's contribution might even have been counter productive.

Having said this, another theme emerging from the book is the importance of trail and error in the Society's method. Sometimes - for example the campaign for the 1851 Great exhibition - it has an idea which fails to take off only to be successfully revisited by a tenacious officer or Fellow. On other occasions - for example vocational examinations - an initiative falters as it develops and has to be rethought before it can take-off. On other occasions - for example art exhibitions - the RSA tries something out but it is another organisation that learns from the Society's mistakes and finds a successful form of implementation. 

I found this heartening in relation to one of our current priorities - the development of the Fellowship as a powerful network for civic innovation. If we succeed in this endeavour - and there many small signs that we are on our way - history will record the various ways we have tried to develop an activist Fellowship. The Coffee House Challenge (2004-2007) was a commendable attempt to rekindle the spirit of the RSA's founding fathers. The CHC generated some good ideas and initiatives but it lacked rigor, and it side stepped rather than challenging the prevailing ethos of the RSA's Fellowship  structures. The RSA networks initiative, launched with a major event in the House in 2007, was another brave attempt. Among the lessons learnt here, quite apart from the technological problems of the on-line platform, was a need for greater realism about the level of engagement and support needed to turn individual Fellow enthusiasm into sustainable activity. Anyone looking back, perhaps from the perspective of our 300th anniversary, on the Society's attempts at renewing the idea of Fellowship will also record that many other membership organisations were trying to tackle similar issues (as this post demonstrates). Whether we will get it right or merely enable others' to learn from our mistakes only time will tell.  

The Society's current Executive and Trustees are sometimes accused- as I am sure all previous RSA leaderships have been - of abandoning the traditions of the Society in favour of some new way of looking at things which will soon be exposed as a passing fad. Be that as it may, it is comforting to know that persistence even in the face of disappointment is such a strong trait of the Society.

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