Sunday, 22 November 2015

An acquisitions fund for the Society for Psychical Research?

From time to time I hear about items for sale that could be of interest to the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) as additions to its archives.  A while back it was a letter by William James concerning the medium Eusapia Palladino, offered directly to the Society by the seller for a sum in the low thousands.  Most recently it was folders compiled by SPR Council member Andrew MacKenzie relating to his Versailles investigation (as described in his 1997 book on retrocognition, Adventures in Time) on a bookselling website, a snip at £400.

While both figures were probably inflated (the latter enormously for what was included, and the SPR actually holds the MacKenzie Collection, so it is a mystery where this came from), I had to say each time that the SPR does not possess a budget for acquisitions so even if these were the best bargains ever it would be difficult for the SPR to purchase them.  Any request would have to be put to the Society’s Council for discussion because the cash would need to come from general funds, inevitably slowing the process down and risking a sale elsewhere in the meantime.

When the Cyril Permutt Collection, which had been on open-ended loan to the SPR, was offered for sale to the Society by Mr Permutt’s family in 2003, the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg stepped in to pay for it on the SPR’s behalf (and later added a further amount for conservation) as the SPR had been helpful in assisting IGPP members prepare the exhibition and book Le troisième oeil : La photographie et l'occulte, published in English as The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  If not for that kind gesture, the albums of photographs gathered by Permutt might have been lost (even though there was a considerable fog over the ownership of many of the photographs, which had been passed to Permutt by the SPR in the first place).*

A way to address the risk of missing out on important items, and to encourage offers of suitable material, would be to set up an acquisitions fund.  This would be a designated fund to reassure contributors that what they gave could not be used for another purpose.   A small standing committee, comprising say the Hon. Archives Liaison Officer, the Hon Treasurer, the Hon. Secretary and the President, could have the delegated responsibility for administering it.  They would be able to call on the expertise of others on a case-by-case basis but theirs would be the final decision.

If a potential purchase came to a sum greater than was in the fund but still represented good value in the committee’s opinion, the sum would be loaned from the general fund but then repaid with the proceeds from later donations.  A surplus in the fund would gather interest, and this would boost the fund.  The SPR has a number of designated and restricted funds, listed separately in its accounts, so this would not be an out-of-the-ordinary manner of utilising its resources.

Having such a mechanism in place would have a number of benefits:

First, should something come onto the market that would enhance the SPR’s archives, the Society could negotiate quickly and confidently knowing that funds were ready, a strong position especially if there were competing interests and the risk that a delay might mean the item went elsewhere.

Secondly, it would act as a focus for people who want to see the Society’s archives strengthened and are happy to give for that specific purpose rather than for general activities. By ring-fencing the money it would reassure potential benefactors that their gifts would be spent in a way that they considered sensible, which they may not always think the case with the general fund.  Purchases could be featured in the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review (as should all acquisitions as a matter of routine anyway) as a reminder of the fund’s existence.  Donors could be named or remain anonymous, as preferred.

Thirdly, it would remind members and non-members that the SPR’s archives are still growing, despite being housed at Cambridge University Library; it is easy to assume that they are now closed but this is not the case.  Anyway, there is always the possibility that one day the Society will be able to retrieve its collections and house them in its own secure facility, though that prospect is some way away and may never be realised, especially as it has just purchased a new headquarters building that is not suitable to house all its holdings, particularly the rare books.

Fourthly, it would act as a beacon for owners and heirs, who might otherwise sell off significant items on the open market, donate them overseas (the Archives for the Unexplained in Sweden is a popular destination) or even throw them away, to consider the SPR as a suitable repository.

Finally, the fund could be used as part of a campaign to publicise the Society.  Promoting the fund would also be a reminder to the wider research community that the SPR has world-class archives, and that should in turn encourage their use.

One disadvantage of a fund is the risk of inflating the market, encouraging people who might otherwise have considered donating to sell instead, thereby making the SPR pay for what it would previously have received free.  That is a risk, but one outweighed by the danger of losing items, and even if there is a value to the object the owner may still decide to donate.  In any case much of it will have little interest for non-specialists so in the absence of competition should not be expensive.

Some things are always going to be beyond the SPR’s resources, however big its budget.  In December 2013 an album of 27 of Canadian Spiritualist Thomas Glendenning Hamilton's photographs taken between 1920 and 1922, put up for auction in New York, went well beyond the $4,000 to $6,000 estimate, going for $93,750 including the buyer’s premium.

There is no way he SPR could compete with that level of expenditure.  Something in the hundreds or low thousands though should not be outside its reach simply because no thought has been given to how it might be paid for.  Such sums could be spent now from general funds, but working against that is inertia and other calls on the money to be weighed against the less tangible value of fresh acquisitions.

It is easy to be complacent about the archives and passively assume that they will expand through donations.  This cannot be guaranteed and opportunities will be missed.  An active collection policy with the finance to back it would help the archives to grow, and generate interest in them.  Appeal funds work very well in the art and museum world, where advertising acquisitions acts to encourage further donations as well as benefiting the institution’s image.  Having a dedicated fund would make it easier to fulfil one of the core functions of an academic organisation – provide the tools for scholarly research.  It is a proposal that is worth considering.

*An article, ‘The SPR Cambridge Archive’, which appeared in the October 2005 issue of Paranormal Review states that ‘ The kindly donation by the Freiburg Institute of the Cyril Permutt Collection has increased the photographic and newspaper cutting archive considerably.’  This is incorrect as the IGPP did not donate the Cyril Permutt Collection but rather the money to buy it.