The Center was founded in 1998 with two broad and interconnected goals: to support and develop interdisciplinary research into the literature, history, and culture of the Renaissance/Early Modern period (1400-1700), and 2) to popularize this academic research and promote interest in this period through various forms of community engagement, public outreach, and educational programming.
For many years, the Center has furthered these goals by developing its research collections (primarily its library, which includes a significant collection of rare books) and by expanding its range of both academic and public programming. The Center also offers a general Reading Room, Visiting Fellows office, and Cheney and Swanson Rooms, used for classes. The Five College area has over 60 scholars in residence in Renaissance studies in addition to the Center's graduate students and visiting scholars who constitute an active community of learning.
The Center occupies the grounds of the former 28-acre estate of Winthrop Saltonstall Dakin, a local attorney, and his wife, Janet Wilder Dakin, the youngest sister of the playwright Thornton Wilder. Janet Wilder Dakin was also well known in Amherst as a philanthropist and founder of the Dakin Animal Shelter. The research institute and classrooms are housed in their brick home built in the style of a Renaissance cottage in Shakespeare's Warwickshire.