Barbara Burns

From The MHRA Centenary Lectures (2020), doi:10.59860/cl.c166fa1

Part of the book: The MHRA Centenary Lectures

Edited by Graham Nelson


Modern Humanities Research Association

Full text.  This contribution is published as Open Access, and its full text is given below.


Barbara Burns

Hon. Chair, Modern Humanities Research Association

The Centenary of the Modern Humanities Research Association was celebrated not once but ten times, in a series of public lectures given right across the UK and Ireland, and held throughout 2018. If there was any single moment when the odometer ticked over to 100 years, however, it came at 5pm on 11 May, when we gathered at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair, that dark-blue £400 property on the great Monopoly board of London. This was not a regular haunt of ours, for the Association is a community of scholars and students who are rarely in the same building as each other, even when working closely together. We have no headquarters, and meetings of our Trustees shift from one Bloomsbury encampment to another. We are a network, not an institute.

Fig. 1. The Lansdowne Club, May 2018

But for one convivial night, we met in a way which our founders would have recognised. We did not wear wing collars or flapper dresses, but we renewed acquaintance, we mingled, we proposed toasts. In his swan song as Hon. Chairman, the distinguished dix-huitième scholar Malcolm Cook spoke of our long tradition.1 And our President,2 Professor Dame Marina Warner, gave us a resoundingly contemporary view of the Humanities: a vision of the dynamism of new art, emerging without anyone's permission. The artists of today fabricate extraordinary events and installations, in which crowds of viewers can themselves be the medium, and YouTube poets reach millions of viewers with an incantatory power never to be committed to paper.

Fig. 2. Left to right: Hon. Chair Malcolm Cook, Hon. Treasurer Alison Finch, Hon. Secretary Barbara Burns, President Marina Warner

This was only one of our ten Centenary Lectures, and perhaps their strongest common theme is of the vibrant connection of the present with the past. The world today is in ferment with its own concerns, just as it always has been. But now the immediacy of the Internet gives us frictionless access not only to each other but to our cultural history. Alain Viala connects a Gucci dress worn by Michelle Obama in 2016 to a map of respectful love drawn by Madeleine de Scudéry in 1653; and what is more, both Gucci and Obama intended us to make that connection. Edwin Williamson finds that the four best-loved characters of Don Quixote now have extrasolar planets named after them.3 Thomas Docherty follows the intertwined threads of cultural idealism and cultural re-appropriation from the MHRA's founding to the Brexit referendum. Manfred Engel takes dream sequences from Gilgamesh through to cinema. Susan Bassnett's lecture on the importance of translation — in no way reduced by the superficial triumph of English — opens with a 2009 employment tribunal examining the legality of texting a line of Catullus in Latin. Michael Cronin's lecture on Utopia begins with Atlantic islands that never were, but takes us to the Dragon's Den contestants who placed 2nd, 3rd and 6th in the last Irish Presidential election. We live not only in a world where languages and nations are mixed and superimposed, but where the culture of now and the culture of centuries are all, in a sense, one.

To arrange the ten Centenary lectures was itself an undertaking, not least because they each took place under different auspices. (In fact eleven had to be arranged, since Susan Bassnett's first try in Glasgow was turned back by snow, a three-day fall which closed the university entirely — something never before seen in March.) It was characteristic of the Association that the Lectures were a collaborative scheme, with colleagues across the country pitching in. And so I would like to thank my fellow convenors — Anne Holloway, Mary Cosgrove, Jonathan Long, Tom Wynn, Ricarda Schmidt, Duncan Wheeler, Jess Goodman, Alison Williams and Paulo de Medeiros — but also the many collegial people who helped us with practicalities on the ground, at each of our venues.

The fiftieth anniversary of the MHRA, in 1968, was marked by a conference on The Future of the Humanities, and was captured in a book — the standard publishing idiom of its time. This was the Association's first stand-alone book title, and it is in that same forward-looking spirit that we issue the Centenary Lectures now as an interactive website, very much the idiom of 2018. This too may be a forerunner.

Fig. 3. ‘C’ Company, 2nd Officer Cadet Battalion, in 1917. Some of their tutors were to found MHRA a year later, in the building just behind this one

We must not forget how terrible a year 1918 was, for all that it ended — for some — with a glimpse of hope. The Europe of 2018, and of today, has its problems. But Brian Downs and his colleagues, who met in a Cambridge room in 1918 to form the Association at a time when the war seemed to have become perpetual, would have rejoiced to see the Europe of today: its pluralism, however uneven; its democracy, however frayed at the edges; its humanity, its solidarity. And above all its artistic verve and vitality, in a new century when access to culture has never been greater in human history.


1Our Annual General Meeting was held the next morning, so that Malcolm formally remained Chair (and I remained Hon. Secretary) until then.↩︎

2The Presidency was an honorary role, and Marina Warner is the 93rd and final distinguished figure to hold it. The first had also been knighted for services to literature: Professor Sir Sidney Lee, President for 1918/19, a Shakespeare scholar and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.↩︎

3At time of writing there are already 4,281 known exoplanets, so μ Arae b, c, d and e will probably not be the last to be named after great characters from fiction.↩︎