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ICS celebrates 70th anniversary

Quuen Elizabeth the Queen Mother visiting the new ICS building at Gordon Square when it opened in 1958

Institute of Classical Studies goes platinum as it celebrates 70th anniversary

The Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) celebrates 70 years since its foundation on Monday 16 October 2023. The ICS is a national and international research centre for the study of the languages, literature, history, art, archaeology, and philosophy of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

The Institute has transformed greatly over the past 70 years. Established in 1953 as a home for the Hellenic and Roman Library and a point of connection for advanced classical researchers across London, the ICS is now funded to be the UK's national centre for the promotion and facilitation research in classical studies and related disciplines. Its world-leading library and visiting fellow programme draws scholars from as far afield as Brazil, Korea, and Australia. Changes in technology and communications have transformed the ways in which users can access the Institute’s resources, while its seminar and events programme draw national and international audiences. This range is exemplified by recent events and publications, such as workshops on Inclusive Classics and 3D Imaging and Modelling for Classics and Cultural Heritage, and recent special issues of our journal focusing on Remembering Roman Syria (2019) and Decolonizing Classics in Africa (2022).

Among many highlights in the ICS’s history, the story of Michael Ventris decoded a series of 3,000-year-old tablets from Crete is one of the most exciting. Building on the work of predecessors, such as Alice Kober, in 1952 Ventris announced the discovery that the hitherto undeciphered inscriptions of the Linear B tablets were in a form of ancient Greek.  His ideas were debated and developed in seminars in the Institute, and many of the earliest discoveries of Ventris and his collaborators appeared first in Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, the Institute’s journal. Following his untimely death in 1956 the Michael Ventris Memorial Fund was founded in 1957 in appreciation of Ventris's twin interests in Aegean Bronze Age studies and architecture. It continues today under the administration of the ICS and The Architectural Association and makes annual awards for new work in these areas.

The role of Classics in interacting with the present is exemplified in the work of many of the Institute's 2023/24 visiting fellows. These include Professor Mark Fleishman, an academic and theatre director from South Africa and leader of a major research project on Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South, and Dr Manuel Álvarez-Martí-Aguilar from Spain, whose research into cultural reactions to ancient environmental catastrophes holds up a lens to present responses to natural disasters.

The story of how the Institute came into existence is told by former Director of the Institute John Barron in an article published by Oxford University Press (available online free for a month from 16 October). Barron introduces the first Director, Eric Turner, and the vision of T.B.L. Webster, whose tireless energy helped bring the ICS into being: “Turner had all the qualities for which Webster, though he respected them, could make no time. The vision of the Institute of Classical Studies was Webster’s, but his greatest stroke of genius was the self-awareness to see that as Director the Institute needed a Turner, not a Webster.”

The first book purchased by the ICS was the three volumes of Papiri greco-egizii. The books came from the library of Sir Frederic George Kenyon (1863-1952). He was the Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum from 1909-31 and was a noted papyrologist, editing the editio princeps (first edition) of the papyrus of the lost Constitution of the Athenians, attributed to Aristotle, in 1891.

The current ICS address at Senate House is the third site the Institute has called home. On its foundation in 1953 the ICS was based at 50 Bedford Square, moving to Gordon Square in 1958 where it remained for the next few decades, before moving to Senate House in 1997. Professor Katherine Harloe took on the role of Director in 2021.

Professor Katherine Harloe said:

Since two of our librarians, Paul Jackson and Sue Willetts, have worked here for 34 and 33 years respectively, I regard myself as very much a newcomer to the Institute! What's so special about this place is its core mission: to connect and support researchers in Classics at all levels. The ICS exists to give scholars space and opportunities to meet, swap ideas and pursue their research projects, and to support Classics and classicists nationwide and internationally. I will make it my mission to ensure that the Institute continues to make the past relevant to the present long into the future.

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