(Some initial thoughts in advance of the ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop.)

One of the main contentions that informs the ‘Institutions of Literature, 1700-1900’ network is that current criticism doesn’t give enough credit to institutions when it tries to chart the disciplinary development of literature.  Most accounts of literary value have traditionally focused on the ideas, lives and works of particular authors, deemphasising the roles that systems of education, dissemination and acculturation have played in promoting, normalising and creating the frameworks within which individual geniuses are now recognised.  When institutions are discussed, they are often analysed in ways that give credit to particular leading figures, most commonly the founder, a key administrative official or a particularly charismatic associate who achieved considerable feats in their own right.  Institutional histories also tend to pay particular attention to organisations’ formative years, valorising processes of establishment and initial ambitions, often at the expense of examining later developments and retrenchments.  One of the network’s major goals is to provide a forum for developing more rounded accounts of institutional operations that can better map the natures of the influences that institutions can assert.

The development of such accounts will be a necessarily collaborative process, but the network’s workshops are designed around one possible means for framing new kinds of inquiry: the exploration of metaphors for the things that institutions do that can sit alongside the powerful languages regarding creativity that are associated with individual authorship.  The idea of the brilliant artist exerts a pervasive influence over our notions of cultural value that tends to occlude and deemphasise the kinds of connections and collaborations around which institutions are usually constructed.  To attempt to draw out these processes, our London workshop in July will look at one of the most frequently-employed metaphors for institutional practices – that of the network – and our York workshop in December will explore the ways in which institutions act.  For our first workshop, though, the programme has been built around examining how institutions might be conceived of as curators, looking at how they have organised collections and meanings in spatial, temporal and ideological terms.

Curation seems to me to be quite an effective metaphor for modelling institutional operations, which often create new meanings through the regulation and organisation of existing practices and materials.  ‘Curator’ has a surprisingly stable set of meanings from the eighteenth century forward, although its cognates are more recent formulations.  Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defines a curator as ‘One that has the care and superintendence of any thing’.  The two key terms here – ‘care’ and ‘superintendence’ – both seem to me to be helpful tools for thinking about what institutions do.  They value – both in bureaucratic and in more affective manners – but they also regulate, setting themselves up as authorities in particular fields through asserting their statuses as loci of particular kinds of expertise.  This combination of care and superintendence can allow institutions to change perceptions of particular fields and groups, as is the case in Johnson’s usage example (from Jonathan Swift): ‘The curators of Bedlam assure us, that some lunaticks are persons of honour’.[1]  Here, the curators of the asylum are figured as being able to draw on the experiences imparted by their institutional setting to complicate commonly-held perceptions of madness, changing the way that lunacy is depicted both in Swift’s vindication of Lord Carteret and in Johnson’s systematisation of the practices of language itself.

In recent years, curation has become a very fashionable metaphor, as Hans Ulrich Obrist, among others, has described:

It’s fairly obvious that ‘curating’ is being used in a greater variety of contexts than ever before, in reference to everything from an exhibition of prints by Old Masters to the contents of a boutique wine shop.  Even the verb form so commonly used today, to curate, and its variants (curating, curated) are coinages of the twentieth century.  This records a shift in understanding from a person (a curator) to an enterprise (curating) which is now understood as an activity unto itself.  There is, currently, a certain resonance between the idea of curating and the contemporary idea of the creative self, floating freely through the world making aesthetic choices of where to go and what to eat, wear and do.[2]

One way to view this would be as a dilution of the senses of the word and its cognates that might make it less useful for considering institutional curation, where notions of authority are often extremely important.  However, one might also take the expansion of the realm of curation to a variety of activities including self-fashioning and the management of reputations as an opportunity to think about the full range of ways that institutions directly and indirectly organise collections, archives and fields of inquiry.  In what follows, I’m going to sketch out some ways in which different processes of curation can be perceived in the institutional records with which I’ve worked most closely: those of the Royal Literary Fund.

When David Williams and a small group of associates established a Literary Fund to aid distressed authors in 1790, their principal aim was to provide financial assistance to those that they perceived as being inadequately recompensed within existing social structures.  As the 1795 ‘Constitutions’ of the society put it:

Every description of genius and merit has some mode of compensation, except that devoted to general science, political disquisition, and the Belles Lettres.  The learned professions, and all the provinces of arts merely imitative, have probabilities of remuneration or refuge;—Literature alone is neglected, when become a distinct pursuit, and absorbing the faculties of the mind.

It is the purpose of this institution to establish a fund; on which Authors, properly recommended, may rely for assistance, in proportion to the produce of that fund.[3]

This raison d’être committed the Literary Fund to two different kinds of curation.  The first was an active kind, in which they selected from among their applicants those whom they thought deserved assistance.  Applications were judged by a Committee of the Fund’s subscribers, who saw it as their duty to aid ‘authors of some published work of approved literary merit’ and to provide single grants to the dependents of deceased authors of valuable works.[4]  However, as its description of its purpose implies, in making its choices, the Fund was also defining a field of literature that differed distinctly from other fields within the arts and sciences.  When it judged each case, the Committee was deciding directly whether an individual author had produced works that should be valued, but it was also reflecting and shaping more general social attitudes regarding what constituted literary merit.

Royal Literary Fund crest.

Quantitative analysis of the Fund’s cases can reveal some interesting patterns in the ways in which the Fund’s officials cared for and regulated their applicants.  During the reign of Queen Victoria, the Fund refused outright to assist 606 of the 1737 writers who applied (just under 35% of the total).  This was generally due to the Committee not believing that their works were of a sufficient quality, although some were also dismissed for moral or procedural reasons.  In this period of the Fund’s history, women’s claims to literary merit were significantly more likely to be rejected than men’s.  41.4% of the women who applied to the Fund were never assisted, as opposed to 33.2% of men.  In the eyes of the all-male Committee who administered the Fund, therefore, we can identify ‘literary merit’ as vesting more distinctly in the kinds of writing that men produced.  Interestingly, this discrepancy seems mainly to be a Victorian imposition, part of a tightening-up of the Fund’s purview under the two secretaries who administered the Fund’s business between 1839 and 1919 (Octavian Blewitt and Arthur Llewelyn Roberts).  Of the 876 writers who first applied to the Fund prior to 1837, only 15% of men and 14.4% of women were wholly unsuccessful.  It would take further research to determine whether this increasing discrimination should best be read as reflecting changing social attitudes as writing became more viable both as a profession and as an exalted vocation; or whether increasing institutional stratification during this period operated to exclude women; or whether this attitude was shaped principally by particular circumstances of the Literary Fund.  Regardless of the precise interpretation, though, our records of the thousands of individual acts of curation that the Fund’s Committee performed record distinct choices about literary merit that can be used to colour and enhance our sense of the changing social and cultural positions occupied by different groups and disciplines.

The Fund also curated in more contingent ways.  One of the most interesting of these was through its name.  When the Fund was set up in 1790, ‘literary’ denoted a far broader field than it came to indicate in the early twentieth century.  This change can be detected in the relative proportions of poets and fiction writers among the Fund’s applicants across three tranches of the case files:

Applications to the Royal Literary Fund from Fiction Writers and Poets
Pre-Victorian (first applied 1790-1836) Victorian (first applied 1837-1901) Post-Victorian (first applied 1902-1939)
Total Applicants 876 1737 1050
Of which writers of Fiction 111 (12.7%) 402 (23.1%) 504 (48%)
Of which writers of Poetry 206 (23.5%) 338 (19.5%) 233 (22.2%)

As this table indicates, the number of applicant who wrote fiction rose precipitously across the three samples, the proportion doubling between the pre-Victorian and Victorian tranches and doubling again between the latter and the post-Victorian tranche.  Again, more data on the relative numbers of novels produced when compared with other kinds of writing would be helpful in order fully to contextualise these numbers, but they certainly appear to show that while poetry’s literary status did not vary a great deal between 1790 and 1939, fiction became increasingly prominent as a form for those who sought to define themselves as occupying the shifting field of literature.

In the foregoing, I’ve tried to give a sense of how thinking about the ways in which institutions curate might allow us to draw out new insights from their practices and archives.  In closing, though, it is important to acknowledge that the Literary Fund prospered in part by drawing a veil over the processes of curation from which I’ve drawn my quantitative data.  Its main mode of fundraising was to hold lavish anniversary dinners at which eminent people would be wined, dined and encouraged to subscribe to the Fund in order to do justice to figures of genius.  A representative example of the sentiments diffused can be seen in an oft-repeated address by William Thomas Fitzgerald, first performed at the Fund’s 1799 Anniversary Dinner:

Is there a sight the heart can hold more dear
Than what Humanity contemplates here?
Pure’s the delight that animates the breast,
To see you throng to succour the distress’d.
Manes of Butler, Otway, Dryden, rise!
Behold an object grateful to your eyes:
England, at last, atoning for her crime—
England, that starved the witty, and sublime!
With contrite feeling opes her ample store,
And bids the Sons of Genius starve no more.[5]

In looking to muster a communal effort to assist a wide variety of distressed authors, the Fund thus found it expedient further to promote the reputations of literature’s most exalted practitioners.  In seeking better to account for the actions of institutions of literature, therefore, it is important to remember that the institutions themselves often push narratives that downplay their own roles, rationalising their collective activities through evoking the value of helpfully exemplary individuals.


[1] Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: W. Strahan for J. & P. Knapton, T. & T. Longman, C. Hitch & L. Hawes, A. Millar, and R. & J. Dodsley, 1755), p. 521.

[2] Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ways of Curating (London: Penguin, 2015), p. 23.

[3] ‘Constitutions of the Society’, in An Account of the Institution of the Society for the Establishment of a Literary Fund (London: J. Nichols for the Society, 1795), pp. 29-33 (p. 30).

[4] This is a standard formula used in the guidelines provided on successive printings of the Literary Fund’s application form, which was introduced in 1841.

[5] ‘An Address to the Company assembled at Freemasons’ Hall, on the Anniversary of the Literary Fund, May 2, 1799. Written and spoken by William Thomas Fitzgerald, Esq.’, in David Williams et al., Claims of Literature: The Origin, Motives, Objects, and Transactions, of the Society for the Establishment of a Literary Fund (London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley, 1816), pp. 216-19 (p. 216).