I have just had the great pleasure – and honour – of being awarded an honorary degree by Queen Mary University, with which I have had a 10-year association as a visiting Professor of Cultural History. Julian Jackson, who has been a good friend during my time at Queen Mary, gave the citation and I am posting my response for two reasons. First, it gave me an opportunity to express my gratitude to the late Lisa Jardine, who got me involved there. And, secondly, it was an opportunity to reflect on what the benefits are of studying the humanities at a time when its benefits are maybe not as appreciated as they deserve to be.
• In autumn 2006, I was having a few problems during my time as Director of the National Gallery. I confided in Lisa Jardine, the wonderful and very charismatic seventeenth-century historian, who was at the time a Professor, not in the history department, but in the English Department, where she attracted both students and other scholars to Queen Mary, running the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters. Lisa had a very obvious and visible commitment to establishing relationships between scholarship and public life, demonstrated by her own involvement in the activities of the then Arts and Humanities Research Board, chairing the Man Booker Prize and as a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. For her, scholarship was a vehicle for the understanding not just of history, but of public life, bringing some the same skills of analysis and interpretation to both and exercising the same sense of morality and judgment in both. It was Lisa who suggested that I might become a Visiting Professor and I remain forever indebted to her for providing me with an intellectual home and for demonstrating that there can, and should, be an interchange between the university and the responsibilities of public institutions.
• I am not going to pretend that I have made a big contribution to the life of Queen Mary, other than very occasionally giving lectures and seminars, including what was described as my inaugural lecture in which I was able to map out some of the challenges of moving from the National Gallery to the Royal Academy, attending lectures not nearly as often as I would like to have done, and hosting history students taking Amanda Vickery’s third year course Behind Closed Doors: Houses, Interiors and Domestic Life from 1660 to 1830 who come and visit us in our house nearby on the Mile End Road.
• What I want to say today is how valuable I have found the association — the sense of an intellectual relationship, however fragile: the recognition that there is a life outside and beyond the often narrow constraints of running organisations; the recognition that while I was struggling with budgets and investments and fund-raising, the everyday world of management, there remains another, parallel world of looking at, thinking about, and analysing the past.
• So, if I have a message to graduating students, it is this. Do not forget that the skills that you have learned in the past three years are applicable in whatever life you are going on to, whatever organisation you work for, whether it is directly related to what you have studied or not. You will, or at least should, have learned skills of digesting complex data at speed; skills of analysis and interpretation; of seeing human activity in relationship to larger structures of practice; skills of making an argument, presenting a case, basic skills of communication. I read everyday of the loss of faith in the virtues of the humanities, most especially from politicians, many of whom are themselves graduates in the humanities, having read history or classics or PPE, suggesting that this is not a form of expertise to be valued. But I have found the humanities to have been a useful training for other areas of public life, providing a sense of discipline in analysis and a sense of morality in placing one’s activities in the context of the past. I very much hope that you all will enjoy the same sense of the benefit of three years of study that I have.