With the Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations in full flow, records and other evidence of the Society’s activities are regularly being handed to the Centre for retention in the archives. The various items of correspondence, programmes, draft manuscripts and leaflets will be of real importance in the future, as evidence to future researchers of our varied programme of activities.
Receiving these various documents set me thinking back to the Society’s programme of events to mark its 300th anniversary, in 1960 – and it’s fascinating to compare and contrast 1960’s range and scope of events with those of 2010. In essence, the programmes of events appear similar – with special media broadcasts, exhibitions and publications featuring in both 1960 and 2010, as well as a commemorative service at St Paul’s Cathedral, and a major gathering of Fellows and the Royal Patrons.
But while the programme may be similar, it seems the content and scope of the events is quite different. Whereas in 1960 the emphasis seems to have been on the Fellows’ current work and research, 2010’s emphasis has more of an air of celebrating the Society itself – its influence, role and relevance – and its rich history, as well as exploring the big issues in current science. For instance, 1960’s media broadcast programmes included 6 BBC radio broadcasts and 2 television series focussing on the specialist work of selected Fellows – whereas in 2010, BBC Radio 4 broadcast 4 special editions of ‘In Our Time’, investigating the history of the Society and its role in shaping science, and ‘The Story of Science’, a television series focussing on the history of science and its development.
This emphasis on the Society’s history, and the history of its Fellows, is crucial in opening up the Society to a wider audience and making it more accessible. Since 1960, the Society has realised it has a wider remit than ‘simply’ supporting scientists – which is to inspire an interest in science. Not only does it want to inspire teenagers to become the scientists of the future, but also to inspire the rest of society to find out about science and its impact on their world. We hear lots today in Britain about ‘dumbing-down’ and a quick comparison of the scope of 2010’s history-based celebrations compared with 1960’s intense focus on cutting-edge science might well be taken as evidence of this by some critics. But in my opinion, telling the story and history of the Society and its Fellows – the story and history of science – can only be of benefit in making the Society – and science – more accessible to a wider audience.