I joined another society last week.
Come to that, I stepped down from positions of responsibility at another, too, and the conjunction of the two events got me thinking about historical societies generally, and their roles in the modern world. I think I’m reasonably well qualified to comment on this, and to explore the challenges that face such organisations at the present time: I’m currently a member of a dozen or so societies of various sorts and sizes (naval, maritime, Welsh, general historical, local history), have belonged to several of them for over 30 years, have chaired one for eight years, and served on the committees of, or held (or still hold) positions of responsibility at, several others. Every now and again, I have to have a purge, either of the countless journals, yearbooks, transactions and so forth that fill up one’s bookshelves at an alarming rate, or else of society commitments themselves, especially if the time spent going to meetings, on developing policies, or sometimes on ‘crisis management’, starts eating into more important aspects of life. Even so, I value the societies that I belong to, because without exception, they do really important work – perhaps by publishing rare sources or academic articles, by preserving aspects of national heritage, or by simply raising awareness of a particular aspect of the past.
In many cases, too, these societies were established, at least in part, as forums in which like-minded individuals could get together and exchange information and views. The problem for them in the twenty-first century is that this purpose has been largely usurped by social media, which is fast, flexible, and above all, free. In this respect, a well administered Facebook page, for example, can carry out pretty much the same function as many an amateur/volunteer-based society, but obtain a far wider reach almost literally overnight. Social media is also far more inclusive and democratic; after all, by definition, those who join societies are those who can afford to do so. Moreover, as far as the UK is concerned, those who attend meetings and events are often those who live in or near London, where the meetings and events in question are invariably held. This leads to the strong sense of déjà vu that I, for one, sometimes experience on such occasions: no matter which society is nominally responsible for holding it, one always runs into pretty much exactly the same people.
Most of the societies I belong to, certainly the ones in which I’ve held positions of responsibility, obsess about their membership numbers. Several of them have experienced a long and steady decline, and although various initiatives sometimes slow this, the uncomfortable truth is that their membership demographic is often of ‘a certain age’. (In one society which I know of, the average age of the membership some years ago, when I was privy to the information, was 69…) Although generalisations are dangerous, there’s evidence that ‘the young’ often aren’t interested in joining such organisations; those who’ve grown up in the internet age expect to be able to access the specific resources they want, electronically and immediately, rather than taking on all the attendant (and expensive) baggage of society membership, including the stream of hard copies of journals or books which will swiftly fill the bijou studio cupboard in Camden which is all that a young early-career academic at the University of Finchley, for example, might just about be able to afford to rent. Now, it’s certainly possible to worry too much about this, and to obsess about a perceived need to appeal to ‘the young’: many people develop interests in history later in life, or think about joining societies when they’ve retired, so there will always be a body of potential recruits. However, the hard truth that societies need to face is that this is never, ever, going to be as large as it once was. Take the naval and maritime history societies: one of their biggest natural demographics, naval and merchant naval personnel, has been decimated over the last fifty or sixty years, and the increase in the numbers of those studying such subjects at university by no means compensates for that loss (not to mention the fact that, to put it crudely, PhD students tend to have rather less disposable income than rear-admirals).
So unless they’re lucky enough to have substantial endowments bequeathed to them, many societies, particularly the smaller ones, are going to struggle. To counter this, they sometimes try to come up with ‘marketing strategies’. However, because they can’t afford to employ professionals, such schemes are usually dreamed up by rank amateurs, and implemented in inevitably amateurish ways; consequently, the results invariably provide proof of the old adage, ‘you get what you pay for’. Surely one way forward in this regard would be for various like-minded societies to pool resources to employ professionals in the fields of marketing, fundraising and online presence. Apropos of the latter, it should be a given in this day and age that even the smallest society needs to have a strong and dynamic ‘platform’ on the Web. Despite this, several societies that I belong to still have only the most basic of websites, and some still have no presence on social media at all. An argument which I’ve heard in at least one such body, along the lines of ‘most of our members are very old [see above] and don’t use the internet, so why should we have a website?’, is surely a textbook definition of the term ‘self-defeating’. The reliance on volunteers has other drawbacks, too. For example, willingness to fill a position of responsibility does not necessarily guarantee competence, and can also sometimes attract individuals who like garnering impressive-sounding titles rather more than attending to the workload that ought to accompany them, or else, perhaps, attract those with a propensity for ‘going rogue’ at the first opportunity. I’ve encountered all of these situations, in several different societies, over many years; like politics and the clergy, such institutions tend to attract all sorts and conditions, from the saintly and/or dynamic to the downright odd, via lumpen incompetents and the completely invisible.
(And since you ask, yes, I stick my hand up from the serried ranks of the downright odd.)
In a nutshell, then, societies that are forward-thinking, dynamic, and above all innovative – both in terms of the ‘package’ they offer to their members, and of the ways in which they raise money, rather than relying solely on subscription income – will undoubtedly survive for the foreseeable future. Those that still run themselves as amateurish nineteenth-century gentlemen’s clubs (and I do mean ‘gentlemen’s’, even if they have plenty of women members), sometimes operating with antiquated systems of governance that simply aren’t fit for purpose in the twenty-first century, and with a business model centred primarily on one product – say, the production of single annual volumes on a single theme, which might or might not be of interest to large swathes of the membership; ever more expensive black tie dinners; or collections of esoteric essays that are circulated only to the membership, not marketed more widely – are probably going to find it more and more of a struggle to survive. To put it another way, a mindset which proclaims ‘we’ve produced collections of essays about futtocks, and only collections of essays about futtocks, since 1769, and that’s the only thing we should attempt to do’, may charitably be termed the business model of the dodo.
Talking of dodos, it’s also undoubtedly the case that no organisation, or anything else come to that, has a divine right to continue to exist. Even the most cherished of institutions won’t necessarily last for ever: witness the cases of Woolworths, Punch magazine, the Holy Roman Empire, Spangles, properly maintained roads, Bruce Forsyth, and the Liberal Democrats.
(Note to stray visitors who might be unaccustomed to the normal tone of this blog: the last of those was what the non-rabid parts of the online human race, admittedly an ever-declining proportion, still refer to as ‘a joke’. Please do not respond with death threats.)
In terms of maritime history, one need only think of the fate of The American Neptune, the august journal that ceased publication in 2002, while in a recent post on this site, I referred to the sad closure in 2015 of the Danish Naval Museum, an institution that had existed in one form or another since the eighteenth century. In the UK within the last 20 years, we’ve witnessed inter alia the demise of the splendid Exeter Maritime Museum, the maritime museum in Caernarfon, and the historic warships collection at Birkenhead, while one hears ‘on the grapevine’ of threats to the existence of several other institutions, either through cuts to funding, a shortage of volunteers willing to keep them open, the intervention of avaricious developers eager to snap up prime waterfront sites, or the sad truth that they tend to be a long way from the standard ‘see Britengland in a day’ tourist route, i.e. London, Edinburgh, Stratford, Cambridge, Oxford, Hogwarts, Bicester Village. The same principle applies to societies, which, as noted earlier, also invariably depend upon volunteers; if subscription income no longer covers outgoings, or insufficient volunteers (who are, in any case, almost certainly poorly qualified to run modern, customer-facing organisations with online presences) come forward, then what are the long term prospects for such bodies?
I know that many will consider this blogpost to be a counsel of despair, and yes, perhaps it is – but only up to a point. For one thing, historical societies need to start thinking the unthinkable. The members of the Antediluvian Order of Admiral Byng Enthusiasts need to contemplate whether they should merge with the Lord Torrington Was Innocent League. The Maritime Memorials Club should consider ways of allowing students to ‘pick and mix’ from its resources, rather than insisting on them taking out a traditional, expensive, annual membership. And yes, the Dead Welsh Admirals Society really needs to consider whether it should wind itself up, and embark upon, say, a five year strategy of ‘extinction management’. It could even be called ‘Operation Dodo’.
Anyway, enough misuse of this blog as a ‘bully pulpit’. I’ll be away on holiday on the next couple of Mondays, and am not yet certain whether I’ll be posting new material, reblogging old posts, or sinking into cyber-silence (for which you’ll probably all be grateful). Either way, I’ll be back, as somebody once said!