Understanding the Institution
In founding the Academy, the crown created an organization that would foster learning. But like any institution, the Academy evolved a distinctive character that reflected its origins, composition, and accomplishments. It developed written and unwritten procedures, enjoyed acclaim and suffered opprobrium, grew and declined. Its members contributed in different ways to the work — some were more diligent, others more imaginative, and a handful assumed leadership while the rest were made to follow — and a few were highly rewarded or esteemed. The institution became associated with particular sites and molded them to its own purposes, but the sites also affected its work and procedures. It interacted with persons and groups outside it — patrons, savants, aspirants, suppliers, or other organizations — and those exchanges affected it. It existed for purposes — scholarly, political, and utilitarian, for example — that may have changed over time but offer a standard for judging how well it worked.
Institutions usually preserve plentiful evidence, and the Academy was no exception. Some of this was private and intended for internal purposes, such as minutes, financial records, and correspondence. There was also public evidence, including publications and monuments. Members are part of the evidence. Their biographies reveal patterns of recruitment and criteria for advancement. Their interests helped qualify them for membership and then shaped the institution itself.
In analyzing an institution, the historian seeks access to the minds of its members and sponsors. Thus its program is paramount. Goals, methods, and actual accomplishments may be traditional or innovative, can evoke respect or skepticism among contemporaries, and may reveal the values of members or their sponsors. It is not enough to isolate the work of the few
acknowledged "stars," whose work was acclaimed in their lifetimes and since. Nor can the historian concentrate only on the successful projects of the organization. The "dead ends" of history — whether they be failed careers or ideas that fell stillborn into the world — may reveal more about the spirit of a given period than either the luminaries or the ideas that seem to be precursors of modern thought. An institution is the creature of individuals and of society, of deliberate acts as well as accidents, of reasonable assumptions and untenable prejudices. The historian must discover such elements and try to understand how, singly and together, the institution, its members, and its work developed as they did.