British School at Rome 2009-2017

 A final message from Christopher Smith as outgoing BSR Director


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

In March 2016, the British Government set out the reason it funds the British Academy sponsored institutes: ‘Developing research links and collaborations with the best researchers overseas.’

As I look back over eight years as Director of the British School at Rome, and the BSR looks forward to a new Director and a new academic year, it seems appropriate to reflect on how we are doing against this clear and specific mission.

My predecessor, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, continued to lead the Herculaneum Conservation Project brilliantly through the first years of my Directorship, and with the support of the Packard Humanities Institute and the local authorities, channelled millions of dollars into Herculaneum, and fostered dozens of international partnerships, most visibly in the major British Museum exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and in commendations by UNESCO. Without the BSR this hugely important project would not have happened.

The BSR is involved in several major AHRC projects and a partner in the ERC Horizon 2020 project Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe.  Simon Keay’s outstanding work at Portus, begun at the BSR and conducted in full collaboration between the BSR, the Rome authorities and the University of Southampton, led to major AHRC grants and then an ERC grant as well as a very popular MOOC. The then AHRC CEO Rick Rylance singled out the BSR’s role as exemplary in terms of international collaboration.

This coming academic year we are hosting eight externally funded research fellows and seventeen humanities scholars (including our first creative writing fellow), and seventeen fine artists, supported by the BSR and our various funding partners.  Topics of research range from Roman clothing to medieval poetry, fascist fountains and the suicide attack on the Italian military police headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq in 2003, and range right across the Mediterranean and beyond, from prehistory to the contemporary. This breadth is both extraordinary and par for the course at the BSR!

The breadth and depth of BSR events in the coming three months continues to push British scholarship out to a wide intellectual community through workshops on ground penetrating radar, digital humanities, Roman Catholicism as a world religion, and one of the first events held outside the UK as part of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities, which will bring together UK and Italian experts on heritage management, illicit trade and endangered archaeological sites. This is part of the BSR’s contribution to accelerating bilateral relations between the UK and Italy, led by our Embassy in Rome.

All of our events (90 in 2016-17) command an international audience.  Our library has an international readership yet remains curated with the needs of UK scholars uppermost.  We have led the unification of Rome’s research library catalogues in URBiS, which with 2.6million records from 22 individual institutions is now a global resource. The BSR is itself a proudly international community where UK scholars and artists meet others from across the Commonwealth, the other foreign academies in Rome, and Italy’s best universities and research units.

In 2017 we commissioned an independent and detailed research review along the lines of REF. The results, just received, are highly positive and the openness of the BSR and its role in facilitating intellectual friendships and academic collaborations is repeatedly valued.

What does this look like in practical terms, in real life?  Next week, the new award-holders will arrive into a vibrant, successful and intellectually challenging institution.  They will form a multidisciplinary community drawn from many traditions and countries.

They will meet award-holders from the twenty-seven other research and arts institutions in Rome, participate in events with scholars and experts from St Andrews, the Courtauld Institute, La Sapienza, Tor Vergata, Siena, Austin Texas, Melbourne, and the Italian superintendencies and Guardia di Finanza, the British Embassy and the Italian Ministry of Culture. The activities will be led by our new Director, Professor Stephen Milner, himself a scholar of international reputation and experience.

If past performance can indicate future returns, then these award-holders will return home with both their own scholarship and creativity strengthened and a deep appreciation of what can be achieved when barriers are broken down and collaborations forged. Every one of last year’s humanities award-holders has secured a prestigious research position, and we have many new and exciting projects just beginning. It seemed fitting that the last event held during my directorship, on the Roman Campagna, united projects funded by the Getty, Leverhulme Trust and Australian Research Council, and brought the riches of our special collections, the knowledge of experts across Rome, and new technological advances in digitization and GIS, as well as contemporary artistic practice, to bear on the changing landscape, ecology and climate of Rome’s hinterland from 1000 BC to the present.

For over a hundred years, the BSR has had the mission of being the bridge between the UK, the Commonwealth and Italy. The BSR, together with the other institutions supported by the British government through the British Academy, form an innovative, successful and vital network, facilitating the work of UK HEIs in their regions, and bringing together the very best researchers and practitioners.

The values of internationalism, collaboration and community have never been more necessary.  I am immensely proud of what my colleagues at the BSR have achieved, staff members, award-holders, research fellows and visitors alike, and grateful to you for your support. I am confident that we fully meet the Government’s core objective for our institutions. And I am convinced that the BSR’s role in representing the best of an international United Kingdom in an international world is and will remain an invaluable part of the research and creative landscape which David Cannadine, the President of the British Academy, rightly described as ‘not recreational but fundamental, not optional but essential.

Christopher Smith