Celebration [in] Style: A Comparison of Anniversaries at the Royal Asiatic Society

Earlier this month, I, Nancy Charley, presented a paper at the conference for the International Council of Archives’ Section for University and Research Institution Archives. The theme of the conference was Commemoration, as the section was celebrating its 30th anniversary, and it was held in Montreal, the site of their first conference. Fortunately, they were accepting virtual attendees and speakers, so I was able to present my paper from the comfort of my own home and listen to some of the other speakers when home and work commitments allowed. It was interesting to hear how other organisations from across the world had undertaken commemorative events and use that as a spur to encourage our planning towards the Society’s bicentenary.

In an earlier blog post, I wrote of some of the things I had discovered about the Society’s centenary. The Society also held celebrations for its 150th and 175th anniversaries and in this post I will turn my attention to these.


The sesquicentenary was celebrated in 1973, the year Britain joined the European Economic Community, the Open University awarded its first degrees, and the British Library was formed. But 1973 is mostly remembered in Britain for three-day weeks, massive strike action, and IRA bombings in London.

The 1960s had seen the establishment of seven new British universities as well as expansion of those in existence.  SOAS opened a new library in 1973, and the rise in academia was paralleled within the Society’s membership. The presidency was no longer held by a Lord or Sir but by Professor E.H.S. Simmonds, a Professor of the Languages and Literatures of South East Asia at SOAS, the Director was Emeritus Professor of Iranian Studies at SOAS, the Honorary Librarian an ex-officio member of the Oriental Faculty of the University of Oxford, and the Honorary Secretary was, a woman and a lecturer in Turkish studies at the University of Cambridge.

Professor E.H.S. Simmonds

The archival material consists of the Council Minutes, and three boxes of records. In contrast to the centenary, exhibitions played a prominent role in 1973. Various institutions held allied exhibitions, the Society mounted an exhibition at its premises on the visit of the Queen, the Society’s patron, and a major exhibition, 150 Years of the Royal Asiatic Society, was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Attendees at the Reception for the Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum

It is difficult to assess how much archives informed the choice of exhibits but within the publication designed for the anniversary, The Royal Asiatic Society: Its History and Treasures edited by Stuart Simmonds and Simon Digby, eventually published in 1979, we find evidence of archival use. C.F. Beckingham provided a history of the Society with a complete list of its officers. Subsequent chapters, describing some of the collections, would also have required archival research.

Publication produced in conjunction with the Society’s Sesquicentenary

A symposium was also organised on, believe it or not, Undeciphered Languages – rather than celebrating what was known, the Society chose to highlight what still was open for scholarship. This may have created a rather niche conference, but other activities were more open, including National Days held jointly with allied organisations and Fellows lecturing at schools. Celebrations were also held. There was a reception when the late Queen Elizabeth II, as Patron, and her husband, Prince Philip, visited the premises; a sherry reception (very 1970s) at SOAS, and a Dinner held at the Merchants Taylor Hall, the rooms of one of the twelve livery companies in London.

The Queen enters the Society’s premises at 56 Queen Anne Street


Prince Philip talks with members of the Society

The following year’s AGM report captured much of the essence of the importance of commemoration, ‘The Sesquicentenary celebrations brought the history of our Society to public notice and illustrated its achievements. It may also be said that great encouragement has been given to the Fellows of the Society and to its many well-wishers, together with an assurance that the Royal Asiatic Society has a future role to play in the serious study of the culture of the nations and the peoples of the Orient world.’


The 175th Anniversary

The 175th  anniversary was in 1998. This was a less elaborate affair and the emphasis was on the Persian and Indian manuscripts and paintings in the collections. An exhibition was held at the British Museum and a lecture at the British Library given by our current Head of Library Committee and former Vice-President, Dr Barbara Brend and entitled The Book of Kings: The Juki Shahnama of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Display and invitation to the 175th exhibition, British Museum

Also, to coincide with the anniversary the Society published Persian Paintings in the Collection of the Royal Asiatic Society by Basil Robinson.

The publication to celebrate the 175th anniversary.

My paper continued to make a comparison of the various commemorations held by the Society and to look at some of the plans for the forthcoming bicentenary. Perhaps these will make a future blogpost…