Making History: Antiquaries in Britain

Making History celebrated the achievement of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Britain’s oldest independent learned society concerned with the study of the past. The Society was established in 1707 with the aim of encouraging the pursuit of “the ingenious and curious” in the field of British antiquities.

The exhibition focused on the discovery, recording, preservation, and interpretation of Britain’s past through its material remains, revealing how new discoveries, technologies, and interpretations have transformed our understanding of the history of Britain since the eighteenth century. The Society was founded prior to the existence of national museums, libraries, and galleries, and it was regarded as the main repository in Britain for antiquities and historical objects until the British Museum gradually began to assume the role in the middle of the nineteenth century. Today the collections at Burlington House in London contain antiquities of international importance; the Society also owns Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire, the former home of William Morris, leader of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The exhibition featured one hundred works selected from the Society’s treasures with fifty additions from the Center’s collections and elsewhere at Yale. It was organized into eight sections: The Discovery of Britain focused on the period before the seventeenth century; The Earliest Antiquaries looked at antiquaries such as William Dugdale, who began to challenge previously held views of Britain’s past; and Founders and Fellows considered the formation of the Society itself.

Collecting for Britain was the heart of the exhibition. Highlights included an early copy of the Magna Carta (ca. 1225), a medieval processional cross reportedly recovered from the battlefield of Bosworth (1485), a forty-foot illuminated “roll chronicle” on parchment, and an extraordinary collection of early English royal portraits painted on panel.

Lost and Found focused on archaeological excavations of the eighteenth century, while The Art of Recording presented the work of artists such as J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin, who were commissioned to record historic buildings, monuments, and objects.

The Society also embarked on several major engraving projects to bring its documentation work to a wider audience. Publishing the Past included the recording of early paintings and magnificent decorations in the medieval Palace of Westminster before it burned down. The exhibition ended with The Rediscovery of the Middle Ages, featuring the art of William Morris and his circle.

View works from the collection included in this exhibition here.


The exhibition was organized by the Society of Antiquaries of London in association with the Yale Center for British Art and the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College. It was curated by Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale Center for British Art, and Nancy Netzer, Professor of Art History and Director of the McMullen Museum, Boston College, in association with Heather Rowland, Head of Library and Collections, and Julia Dudkiewicz, Collections Manager, Society of Antiquaries of London.

The accompanying publication, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707–2007, was available for sale in the Center’s Museum Shop.


McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College:
September 9, 2011 to December 11, 2011

Yale Center for British Art: February 2 to May 27, 2012

Top image
Making History: Antiquaries in Britain installation, Yale Center for British Art, photo by Richard Caspole