Academics, Agents and Activists: A history of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1916-2016

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|10th January 2017|Collections & Research|0 comments

John Hollingworth, Gallery Manager and co-curator of ‘Academics, Agents & Activists: a history of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1916-2016’, continues his overview of this fascinating centenary exhibition recently on display at the Brunei Gallery, which showcased material from the incredibly rich archive collections at SOAS – both the School’s own institutional archive and material held by Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library. The exhibition was organized around the tenures of the School’s Directors, with the fifth being that of Michael McWilliam.

McWilliam years 1988-1996

Sir Michael McWilliam, KCMG (b.1933), SOAS Director (1989 – 1996), 2014. Oil on canvas By Aldo Balding (b.1960). © SOAS

Sir Michael McWilliam became Director of SOAS in 1988, after leaving Standard Chartered Bank. He succeeded Jeremy Cowan who had presided over a contraction and restructuring of the School, leaving behind a more streamlined institution with renewed special funding in place. McWilliam was able to capitalize on this, further expanding teaching provision through new posts, centres and departments such as Art and Archaeology and Music. Student numbers also rose by 50% over the 3 year period from 1988-89, with total Full-time Equivalents in 1991-92 reaching 1,500 for the first time.

The Department of Music was founded in 1988 and is the largest and leading centre in Europe for the study of World Music. Its staff are leading authorities on the traditional and popular musics of Asia, Africa and associated diasporas, their history, structure, performance, cultural significance and transformation in the world’s media. SOAS music students include or become performers of music from all over the world, and graduates have won awards such as the Mercury Prize. Members of the department also produce CDs, host radio programmes and publish the SOAS Musicology Series of books on music. The Department of Music launched the SOASIS CD label in 1998. Its first CD was ‘Oceans of the Heart’ (SOASIS01), a compilation of Asian and African music recorded by performance teachers and students of the department.

Images of SOAS CD covers © SOAS

Professor Elizabeth (Lisa) Croll (1944-2007) © SOAS

Professor Elizabeth (Lisa) Croll (1944-2007) was a social anthropologist and specialist on China who achieved great distinction both as an academic and as an international consultant on subjects such as development, poverty alleviation and the rights of women and children. She studied for two degrees at SOAS, an MA in Far Eastern studies followed by a PhD in the anthropology of China and was appointed Lecturer in 1990. She rapidly rose to the post of Professor in 1995, becoming the founding head of the new Department of Development Studies in 1996.


Professor John Peel (1941 – 2015) © SOAS

Professor John Peel (1941 – 2015) was a distinguished scholar in the African Studies community who joined SOAS in 1989 as Chair in Social Anthropology. He was a leading figure in the British study of Africa whose particular area of expertise was the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria. He pioneered a sociological understanding of the historical development of Christianity and its interactions with Islam and local Yoruba religions in south western Nigeria from the mid – 19th century to the present day. His rich and complex analyses made outstanding contributions to the disciplines of African Studies, Anthropology and the Sociology of Religion. He is remembered fondly by many former colleagues and students.

McWilliam made great efforts to raise the external profile of the School during his tenure, particularly with his expansion of the member profile of the Governing Body which now included Sir Robert Wade-Gery as Chairman. He also, with his pro-Directors Professor John Wansborough and Professor Robert (Bob) Taylor, set about to modernize both the administrative and academic structures of the School. This was against a background of further economic pressures which dominated the 1990s. Certain proposed reductions, such as the closure of the Linguistics department, were reconsidered but significant economies had to be made in other areas such as the closure of the highly successful Extramural Division.

Nonetheless, the SOAS estate expanded during his tenure, with the Faber building acquisition and the development of the Brunei building and gallery, which opened in 1995. The Faber building at 23-24 Russell Square had been home to the publishers Faber and Faber for much of the 20th century and famously was the workplace of T. S. Eliot. In the case of the Brunei Gallery, it was external fundraising which enabled the School to create its first new premises during the McWilliam years, with £10,000,000 provided by the Sultan of Brunei which enabled the building of an essential teaching, administrative and display space for SOAS which is today a key School facility.

View of SOAS from the top of Senate House before the Brunei Gallery was built… © SOAS

… and afterwards © SOAS


Share this Post:

About Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *