The ‘Institutions as Curators’ workshop opened with a talk by Willy Maley, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Glasgow. Willy’s presentation began by examining the word ‘lucriferous’, a coinage of Samuel Hartlib’s circle that maps closely onto the priorities for institutional development during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. ‘Lucriferous’ connotes bringing gain in more general senses, but also describes developments that are directly lucrative and profitable. Through Willy’s examinations of early modern institutions, it became clear that pragmatic improvements and financial gain were commonly among their principal concerns. Gresham College stressed practical knowledge and the Royal Society developed international networks that played considerable roles in projecting colonial power and in minting imperial profits, Ireland often serving as a laboratory for experiments in this area. Willy’s talk discussed a wide range of organisations both prominent and obscure, making clear the considerable extent of the institutional networks in place before 1700. He payed particular attention to the diverse institutional culture of London and to George Buck’s claim that the city constituted the nation’s third university while also stressing Leiden University’s important role in the education of British innovators. He moved on to examine a series of satires on projectors and projection, which demonstrated that poetry and drama commonly framed suspicions of new institutions’ motives almost as soon as they began to develop. In this context, Thomas Sprat’s 1667 history of the Royal Society, published only seven years after its formation, can be seen as an anxious rebuttal to an already-powerful range of discourses that sought to question and resist the narratives of colonialism and profit inherent in institutional culture. While institutions could often be instruments of social mobility, with their means serving, as the University of Glasgow’s papal bull puts it, to raise ‘to distinction those that were born in the lowest places’, they were also key instruments of power both for the state and for those who achieved elite statuses within their networks. Even seemingly innocuous or idealistic projections have the potential for weaponisation, as the roles played by studies of insects in the development of modern drone technologies demonstrate.
This is only a brief and bald summary of Willy’s detailed argument, but for those who wish to explore the issues raised in more depth, Willy has kindly provided his PowerPoint, which can be downloaded using the link below.