Making Publics: Looking back, looking ahead

maps_webBy Jim Hynes

Members of the Making Publics (MaPs) project team gathered at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts last Monday to celebrate their five-year project as well as the launch of Spheres (with Festival Montreal Baroque), the second of two arts festivals they have taken part in. (

Started in 2005 and made possible by a $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, under the Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program as well as with generous support from McGill, the research project has developed a new understanding of the Renaissance and fostered a new account of the emergence of modernity. Headquartered at McGill and including more than 30 researchers from Canada, the USA, and Britain, Making Publics: Media, Markets and Association in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700, studies the formation of “publics” — forms of association built on the shared interests, tastes, and desires of individuals. Publics were a highly significant feature of early modernity, they argue, and the phenomenon of public making suggests a new way of understanding the social and political dimensions of artistic and intellectual works.

The project has developed an account of how works of art and intellect changed the shape of early modern society, opening up new spaces for public expression and action by those merely “private” people who normally would have been excluded from the grand public life of the social elites.

“I am deeply gratified by what we’ve achieved in the project,” says Paul Yachnin, the Director of Making Publics and the Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies in McGill’s English department.

“My work over the past 25 years has been dedicated to understanding the social value of works of theatrical art. Years ago I wrote against what I said was that the under-theorized and inadequately historical approach that was called New Historicism, but I couldn’t fully explain ‘why Shakespeare mattered’ until I was able to bring together a group of scholars whose work covered a range of national traditions and a range of disciplines. Together over these past five years we have drawn a new picture of the Renaissance as a time that saw a huge expansion of forms of cultural activity and publication of all kinds and a corresponding expansion of new forms of public expression, identity, and action, mostly for ordinary people.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Yachnin says. “We argued, we disagreed, and we had to work hard to understand each other’s methodologies. But we stuck to it because we were all dedicated to the principal task of understanding art, intellectual work, and social action in the Renaissance.”

The project may officially end on December 31, but research in this new area will definitely continue, Yachnin says.

“One of the best features of the project has been the opportunity to involve brilliant young scholars in our work. Many of them have made it their work too and have started to publish substantially on publics and public making in their particular fields. There are at least 100 young scholars from all over the world whose work has been so strongly influenced by the project that they will be researching and writing about publics and public making well beyond the formal end of the project.”

Their work, Yachnin says, will be supported by the MaPs website, which will continue and grow for at least five years beyond 2011.

Earlier this spring, Making Publics was the subject of 14-part CBC IDEAS series called “The Origins of the Modern Public.” Listen to it here:

For more information about the Making Publics project, the publications it has spawned and the events it is connected with, visit: