The Burlington Five: Learned Societies Fight for their Homes
The Times, 18 January 2004
Tomorrow, January 19th , in the High Court (Chancery Division), a case opens that threatens the entire future of the most scholarly institutions in this country. The five learned societies in the courtyard of Burlington House off Piccadilly - the Linnean Society, devoted to all branches of biology, sheltering under the archway, with the Geological Society opposite, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society of Chemistry - are all, to put it bluntly, facing eviction, because the government fancies the rooms for itself.
London, and Britain as a whole, may lose a stupendous resource. In the eighteenth century, Britain reinvented itself intellectually, fostered by devoted clubs of coffee-house amateurs and George III gathered several learned societies, with the Royal Society itself, at Somerset House, an extraordinarily ambitious project to make London rival Paris. They moved to Burlington House in 1874, taking over purpose-built premises, equipped with libraries and meeting rooms: the only unfulfilled part of the grand Victorian dream was that the University of London would also move in, at the back of the Royal Academy.
Today's crisis arises because only one organisation, the Royal Academy, actually has a contract, having cannily bought a 999-year lease for a sovereign - a coin allegedly given, appropriately, by Queen Victoria. Although the rest spend fortunes on their grandly crumbling premises, they pay no rent. They are here by the generosity of a long-dead monarch. Under John Major's government, the Crown began to feel less generous. Under Labour, the interest grew ominously fervent. Different heavyweights have muscled in, notably John Prescott, since the buildings now come under the Office of Deputy Prime Minister. Why should these allegedly 'snobbish', 'standoffish' institutions occupy 'a tied cottage' in the middle of London (as one M.P. put it)? Rumours circle that the courtyard is destined to be a glitzy grand hotel, or offices for the new Ministry of Constitutional Affairs. In April 2002, an inquiry of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee commented that 'withdrawing current arrangements would impact on the good work that the Burlington House societies are able to do. This would be a net loss to Science.' The government were not persuaded. The current case, brought by the government, and defended by the five societies, will determine exactly what right the societies have to be there. They aren't squatters, exactly - if they were, they would have the rights they need. They may have 'rights of estoppel' - honouring a presumed agreement. But instead, it is argued, they are 'tenants at will'. If so, the will of the landlord - the government - may be harsh.
But why should we care? What lies behind those grand doors? A lot of history, for one thing. At a meeting of the Linnean Darwin read his paper on the origin of the species, and his portrait hangs here beside that of his rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. The Linnean's great history stretching back to the time of Joseph Banks. Before Christmas, the busts on the curving marble staircase were wreathed in bay and holly, with the odd glittery butterfly perched on a distinguished balding head. In the green reading room, with its green under-water atmosphere, tall columns rise to an elegant balustraded balcony, and in the library opposite, where mounting files threaten to cascade off desks - and where you can access 400 periodicals in a host of languages - one corner is crammed with coffee and tea-making clutter, crowned with a purple knitted tea-cosy, beneath a print from 'Tea-Blending: a Fine Art', from the Libraries' Insch Tea Collection.
The true treasures lie deep below, in its strong-room, ruled by the Librarian Gina Douglas and containing the letters, travel diaries, working papers and books of Carl Linnaeus, the tough Swedish genius who established the botanical naming system we use today, sold by his widow to pay for dowries for her three daughters. A heavy iron door swings back. Gina opens a volume of bound letters to reveal a note from Rousseau to Linnaeus, breathing excitement and admiration. She pulls back a drawer, and here are the skeletons of strange dried fish, while another gleams with dragonflies and insects (the mammals got moth in 1897 and became 'a nuisance'.) A time-machine, a microcosm of Enlightenment exploration and classification, the room is the setting for a dramatic episode in A.S.Byatt's novel 'The Biographer's Tale' when the lights go out and the hero feels his way blindly along Linnaeus' leather-bound volumes. 'It would be an intellectual and aesthetic disaster, and a scandalous loss to London', says Byatt, 'if the Linnean collection were moved from its perfect surroundings simply for the
benefit of civil servants'. Each society is strikingly different, but their energy flows across this 'synoptic' courtyard, as the Secretary of the Linnean, John Marsden, neatly described it. A member of the Astronomical Society designed the layout of the courtyard fountains, reflecting the pattern of the planets at Newton's birth. The Chemists, in their last open week exhibited a painting of 'The Dream of the Virgin' from the Antiquaries - when a Courtauld team analysed it they found, under the gold paint, an image of Jesus crucified on the Tree of Life. Modern science meets art history.
This is a courtyard of heroes, past and present. The chemists look back to Joseph Priestley, Faraday and Roscoe; to Henry Perkin who invented modern dye-stuffs, including the colour 'mauve', founded the modern organic chemical industry; to the Nobel prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin and her fellow crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale; more recent Fellows have included Nobel prize-winners Alexander Todd, who worked on the molecules that make up DNA, and Sir Harry Kroto, who discovered the C60 molecule known world-wide as 'Buckminster Fullerene', and Dr Simon Campbell, who led the team that discovered Viagra. A first President of the Astronomers was William Herschel, and the names of its Fellows include Charles Babbage, who conceived the computer, Bernard Lovell, founder of Joddrel Bank ,Sir James Jeans, Arthur Eddington, the prime expositor of relativity in Britain and to Fred Hoyle and Sir Patrick Moore - as well as the current Astronomer Royal.
Across the way, the roll-call of the Antiquaries, the oldest of the societies here, founded in 1715, runs from William Stukeley, Josiah Wedgwood and Sir William Hamilton, of vases and volcanoes fame, to Mortimer Wheeler and on to David Starkey and the historians and archeologists of today. To Starkey, the threat to the societies is an outrage: they were the engine of Britain's intellectual awakening, far more than the universities, and sum up the great tradition of private scholarship outside academia including men like Darwin, Gibbon and Macaulay. 'Not only is the court case a disgrace, it is a terrible illustration of the way government puts their own interests above public welfare. The Burlington House scheme was conceived of monumentally - it was important, and deliberate, that the site was in the centre of things, and that the buildings themselves were a visible symbol of the ideal of learning. Who would dream of moving the British Museum to Surbiton?' he asks.
All the Burlington Five play a part in public issues. Because they are not part of any academic institution, and take no money from government or industry, they can tackle ministers and address the public without accusations of axe-grinding. They are hubs of local, national and international networks, with members from local societies as well as advanced research bodies. The charge of elitism falters when you see how they welcome students and visitors, find the Kent Field Club newsletter alongside 'Biodiversity News', grasp a brochure on 'Chemistry in the Community', or watch the Astronomers' Monica Grady on television giving her Royal Institution Lectures on 'Voyage through Space and Time'.
They look to past and future simultaneously. The Antiquaries may have splendid teas, and ceremonies involving a tricorne hat and a mace, but their talk is of new excavations, antiquities lost in Iraq, bills in Parliament. The Astronomers and Geologists are concerned for the fate of the Beagle on Mars, since Colin Pillinger is a Fellow of both. The Geologists' treasures included William Smith's famous 'Map that Changed the World' - the first national geological map - but today they provide the secretariat for the cutting-edge All-Party Group on the Earth Sciences. The Chemists advise the government on white papers and pour out material for schools.
They can also promote research that universities shy away from because it has no quick direct outcome, and thus doesn't attract grants. The Linnean, for example, was among the first bodies to alert us to the perils of global warming - a stance that then seemed cranky. They took the lead in investigating DNA and applied this knowledge through modern classification techniques like cladistics, tracing evolutionary pathways and mapping life on earth in a way that is just as radical as Linnaeus and Darwin were in their day. We may feel that these societies have 'nothing to do with us'. But they do. They are still pioneers, though rich in history. But none are cash-rich: economic rents in central London will cripple them unless they sell off their treasures. Sir David Attenborough is one of many prepared to step forward and put their case. A Fellow of the Linnean, he feels it a great honour to belong to it since it has shaped our understanding of the world, and of natural history. 'It has always', he says, 'been a source of pride to me that London is a civilised city - and when visitors come from abroad, you can take them into that courtyard and say, 'Look - this sums it up. Ahead of you are the arts - the Royal Academy - and to left and right are history and the sciences - botany , astronomy, chemistry and geology. If ever a place was redolent of learning and culture, the Burlington courtyard must be supreme.'
If the Burlington Five are forced to leave, the capital will not only lose wealth from the past, but the curiosity and vital energy that are the life-blood of the future. A cause we should all be fighting for.