University of Cambridge>Cambridge Victorian Studies Group

About the Project

“Past versus Present: Abandoning the Past in an Age of Progress”

This project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust for five years (2006-11), investigates the development and impact of competing views of the past in the nineteenth century in Britain. Within our own collective memory, the nineteenth century occupies a pivotal place as an age of progress and tradition. The Victorians had a constant, often agonized awareness of their responsibility for creating the future, and also unparalleled access to the past. At the same time as technology and economic development were raising prospects of an unprecedented leap into the future, the same tools and processes were unearthing - through scholarship, archaeology, geology and biology, education and political debate - multiple pasts in wonderful profusion and vexingly contradictory detail. Elites had grappled with similar issues in the eighteenth century, but in an increasingly complex and democratic culture, these problems faced the whole of society. The problem of multiple pasts and the choice of using or transcending them preoccupied the Victorians at all conceptual levels, from the individual's sense of personal development to the global question of the fate of empires. Which pasts should be abandoned, which cherished as foundational? This project will look at this central problem of nineteenth-century British culture from a range of different perspectives and disciplines.

Paradoxically, the intellectual legacy of the Victorian struggle with these problems is a set of disciplinary divisions, which make it very difficult for modern scholars to reconstruct the policies and dynamics of that engagement. The appeal and challenge of this project is the opportunity to transcend those disciplinary divides that have come to seem so natural today. It is striking that few nineteenth-century specialists read Latin or Greek with any fluency or have any abiding interest in theology – which inevitably makes it hard to absorb or appreciate the very materials that informed the Victorian cultural imagination. The modern academy has inherited these barriers, which obscure the interrelations of knowledge; it is only by a thoroughly interdisciplinary enquiry that these central questions of Victorian culture and its inheritance can be broached.

This interdisciplinary project, located at Cambridge University, in association with King's College London, and conducted under the umbrella of the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group (CVSG), has directors from four disciplines, History, History of Science, English, Classics. The project is formally attached to the Classics Faculty, but each member of the team is affiliated to the Faculty which is most relevant to his or her work. The complete team comprises of 5 directors, 6 postdoctoral fellows and 3 doctoral students. It is advised by an external Academic Advisory Board and supported by the wider membership of the CVSG, one hundred postdoctoral scholars from the full range of disciplies.

Among the research topics already identified by members of the team as fields for study by the project are:

• new technologies and disciplines of historical recovery, especially archaeology, which challenged dominant paradigms of history, posed pressing choices between abandoning, choosing and preserving specific pasts, and raised the question of disciplinarization (e.g. connections and boundaries between geology, theology, prehistory, archaeology, classics, Assyriology, Egyptology and history).
• ducation for citizenship, domestic and imperial, which drew on a wide variety of historical and evolutionary paradigms and which from the 1860s especially was one of the most urgent theatres of debate over the meanings of the past in both elite and popular culture; debates over the relevance or irrelevance of past empires to the Victorian experience, and the uses of history in socialist and utopian thought, will be of particular interest.
• ideas of development and evolution, especially before Darwin’s Origins brought them to the fore; interactions between ‘science’ and ‘literature’, e.g. in the sub-genres of autobiography, the historical novel, and cosmological narratives, will be of particular interest, as will be the disciplinary emergence of the anthropological sciences and other ways of putting human development into longer-term perspectives.
• ideas of modernization, especially after 1870: the growing awareness of forces of change in human biology, ecology, the historic built and natural environments; consideration will be given both to the emergence of ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ movements and to their flip-side, ideologies of modernization that privileged change and disparaged ‘anachronistic’ leftovers.

Among the project’s highest priorities is the cultivation of interdisciplinary work in Cambridge and amongst students of the nineteenth-century more broadly. To this end, the CVSG has already developed working relationships with a number of enterprises and organizations that share these interests; for example:

'University Library Tower Project'. The Cambridge University Library has been awarded a million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to audit and catalogue the rich unexplored collection of Victorian ‘popular’ publications currently stored in the top floors of the UL 'Tower'.
Fitzwilliam Museum. The Victorian history of the Fitzwilliam as a form of managing the past offers obvious opportunities for the CVSG project. In addition, the Fitzwilliam is planning an ambitious exhibition on Darwin, natural history and the arts for the Darwin bicentenary year in 2009, in conjunction with the Yale Center for British Art.
CRASSH. The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge adopted as its theme for 2007-09 'Cultural Transmission and Disciplinary Change', a subject close to the heart of the CVSG project .
Charles Darwin. Cambridge is the home of a number of scholarly enterprises relating to Charles Darwin and will be a principal centre for the celebration of the Darwin Bicentenary in 2009. Professor James Secord is now the Director of the 'Darwin Correspondence Project', so that CVSG will be working closely with that project and with The Complete Work of Darwin Online ( and also on the 2009 exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
'British Association for Victorian Studies'. In 2009, the CVSG hosted the joint meeting of the BAVS and the North American Victorian Studies Association, on the theme ‘Past and Present’ immediately after the Darwin Bicentenary Conference.

The group is always keen to hear from other possible collaborators.

Public activities of the project will include seminars, symposia, conferences and public lectures - for more information of scheduled and planned events, see 'Upcoming Events'.


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