The Re:Enlightenment Project held its second Re:Enlightenment Exchange in London from July 13-15, 2011. The event took place in three locations: the British Museum, the Senate House of the University of London, and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. With major support from the School of Advanced Study, the British Museum, the Free Word Foundation, and our co-founder Kevin R. Brine, the Project gathered in London as a network of institutions and individuals who share a common purpose: reconstructing the ways in which knowledge works in the world. Based at New York University, the Re:Enlightenment Project identifies, generates, and shares new practices through interactive exchanges, collaborative research and publication, and experiments in dissemination. It does so organically, evolving with every connection we make and through the initiatives we launch. As described on our Home Page, we work together to pursue a historic opportunity: the transformation of our Enlightenment inheritance.
The pressure to transform is mounting—so, too, are the risks and, we hope, the rewards. London in 2011 offered a crucial site for grasping what’s at stake: how shifting resources and attitudes are challenging Enlightenment norms for creating, curating, disseminating, and accrediting knowledge. We recognize great danger in the speed and severity of these changes, including the financial cuts that have been or are likely to be imposed on every institution in our Exchange. But we also see opportunity—the possibility that our current mix of (financial) scarcity and (technological) prosperity can provide the impetus for beneficial transformations in knowledge. Those may range from recasting the disciplines to exploring the permeability of institutions to renovating the forms in which knowledge is made apparent, stored, manipulated, and applied. In fact, our journey to London was a tale of discovering that such productive experiments are already underway: Re:Enlightenment is at work in the world, though almost always in isolation and without the label. Generating a shared sense of direction—that 21st-century Enlightenment has already begun—was invaluable to each individual enterprise and to the wider community our efforts are helping to form. In London, we began the construction of an operating platform of concepts and tools for our expanding community, one that can bear the load of Re:Enlightenment. Our strategy was to address both the practical and theoretical, to share problems and solutions while creating new conduits for exchange in the future.
Problems of dissemination were central to this event: how to make useful exchange useful to others. This entailed discussions of protocol, such as copyright, and practice, including innovative enterprises such as Open Book Publishers. We also integrated into the Exchange the drafting of what we are now calling The Re:Enlightenment Report, a manuscript co-authored by individuals and institutions that pulls together for print (and other forms of dissemination) a collective sense of the turn to Enlightenment as a touchstone. It proposes by example new structures for research and for what the Enlightenment called "improvement."
The value of the Exchange and all of its outcomes was indexed in part by the number and kinds of boundaries we cross: professional, institutional, and geographical. We are academics and researchers, curators and librarians, deans and administrators, funding officers and publishers—from both the public and the private sectors. Recognizing that Enlightenment emerged in the eighteenth century from then innovative ways of mediating relationships among individuals, groups, and technologies, we have actively sought this hybridity. The collaborations strengthened by it will, we hope, put pressure on existing organizations of knowledge and work.
Our combination of primary hosts in London, William St. Clair and Warwick Gould at the School of Advanced Study, and Kim Sloan and J. D. Hill at the British Museum, reflect this hybridity, as do our other sponsors and partners at this event. In addition to those listed above, these include the RSA and its director, Matthew Taylor, the University of California, Santa Barbara, Trondheim University, KULTRANS at the University of Oslo, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Victoria. Colleagues from these institutions were joined in London by a strategically diverse range of Project participants and invitees, including museums (from the Natural History Museum, Tate Britain, and the Hunterian to the Ashmolean and the National Portrait Gallery), the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Frick Collection, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), and universities on both sides of the Atlantic.