BOSTON -- Richard Landes thinks people had a perfectly reasonable response to his Center for Millennial Studies when it came into being in 1996.
"To those few who even knew we existed, we looked kooky," he says.
In fact, when he proposed the project to his bosses at Boston University, where he is a professor of medieval history, Landes recalls that they told him: "It's OK if you want to do this, but don't say you're at BU."
But now, with the countdown from 1999 to 2000 under way, the Center for Millennial Studies is all the rage. Media outlets from around the world call for interviews, computer enthusiasts bookmark its Web site (www.mille.org) for updates on the Y2K bug, and researchers increasingly turn to the center for information about the end-of-century proliferation of survivalists, conspiracy theorists, UFO sighters and religious zealots. The center has come a long way in a short time. While other academics and organizations are studying specific social, technological or religious issues surrounding the new millennium's approach, the operation on Commonwealth Avenue appears to have become the most extensive and ambitious anywhere.
Its stated intent is to provide analysis about current events and compare them to previous millennial changes and, most important, to create a comprehensive archive about a period that already is drawing more interest by the day from educators, journalists and historians.
"We want to be the place where, in the next few years and far beyond, anyone who wants information about what occurred will look in our computers, at our files," says Landes, whose passion for his new mission mirrors that of some of the people he studies.
Last month, Landes, 49, traveled to Jerusalem -- which he thinks will be ground zero of religious millennial activity -- to spend New Year's Eve at Temple Mount, interviewing a group of fundamentalist Jews awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. He plans to return to the holy city next Dec. 31, when he expects tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world will converge to await salvation, destruction, the arrival of celestial beings, the second coming of Christ, Armageddon, or some other tumultuous permutation of apocalyptic visions.
Religion is one of two subjects that pervade millennial study. Many religious zealots, and an array of more mainstream believers attach great significance to the arrival of the 21st century. The second dominant theme, which Landes predicts will eclipse even President Clinton's impeachment trial, is the Y2K problem, the term coined to describe many computers' inability to deal with dates after Dec. 31, 1999.
Some observers, including serious programmers, warn of widespread social disruption if the problem isn't repaired, as utilities, banks and other essential services collapse.
Landes and his colleagues are tracking some extreme folks -- like the ones in Indonesia who are hunting out witches to prevent them from doing any millennial mischief, or the ones in the American West who believe Y2K is an omen that the Earth is nearing its end. Most of the center's time is spent on more concrete matters, however.
In particular, Landes says he hopes his research will persuade municipalities, businesses and individuals to take the Y2K problem even more seriously than some already do. And he says the center's monitoring of religious organizations could serve as an early warning system against violence, anti- Semitism and other negative responses that he expects among some who will be dispirited and angry if their expectations aren't realized in the new century.
"Disappointment is the big black box in millennium studies," says Landes, who bases this assessment on his study of previous millennial movements. "If you think it's your moment, and God is on your side, the letdown could be enormous."
While much of the religious rhetoric so far is limited to extreme groups, officials at the center foresee discussion moving into mainstream churches as the millennium draws closer and millennium mania grows. They say that's partly because people's imaginations -- and behavior -- will be affected by the mysteries and possibilities that 2000 evokes, but also because of heightened media coverage.
"It's just such a huge symbol that it's easy to get attention by hanging anything you want onto it," said David Kessler, 32, the center's executive administrator. "The more news there is about it, the more people seem to want to do something, anything, in response."
The center, in three connected rooms that could be mistaken for a dorm suite, sometimes seems to function less like a specialized history repository than the scholarly equivalent of a vacuum cleaner, sucking in anything and everything that might be pertinent and filing it away.
Its half-dozen employees accumulate newspaper clippings, videotapes, Internet postings, pamphlets and other literature produced by religious sects, survivalists and conspiracy theorists, and conduct their own interviews to add to the mix.
Landes conceived of the center while driving on a Los Angeles freeway in 1994 with Steven O'Leary, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who had just published a book, "Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric." The two friends turned their idea into reality when they raised enough money two years later.
In addition to its voluminous and entertaining Web site, the center publishes a quarterly newsletter, holds a monthly discussion group, runs periodic educational programs and sponsors an annual conference. The last one, in Boston last month, suggested that millennial scholars can maintain their sense of humor while tackling momentous issues. Seminars had titles like "Dating and the Millennial Imagination" and "Christians Who Kill, and the Women Who Love Them."
Assuming the grants keep coming, Landes hopes his brainchild will thrive long after he moves on to other projects. In any case, he figures operations will continue at least two more years -- since the new millennium technically begins Jan. 1, 2001.
Besides, the center already is planning its conference for 2002. The tentative title: "Disappointed Millennialism."
Pub Date: 01/10/99