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Maria Asp and Anne Miche de Malleray

Tread softly for you tread on peoples' lives, or how to secure the memory of an institution while not appearing as a gravedigger
cehic 07/05/2009

Maria Asp and Anne Miche de Malleray
Maria Asp and Anne Miche de Malleray

Apologies first for stealing and changing a line from a poem by Yeats. With this rather pretentious title we want to provide a talk, slightly less pretentious, that will dwell a little on the “softer” but not necessarily easier aspects of our profession. We will outline the work done by the Center for History of Science when one of the other research institutes under the auspices of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Kristineberg Marine Research Station, was handed over to Gothenburg University.  Examples of considerations made in the process of inventorying and appraising documents as well as objects, such as scientific instruments, provide the back-drop for discussions on the role of the archivist as the “middle-man” and possible grave-digger.

Background

In 2008 one of the research institutes under the auspices of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Kristineberg Marine Biological Station, was sold to the University of Gothenburg. The Academy is a private body whereas the university is an official one.  The two organizations had some years previously run the Station together and Gothenburg University owns the newest part of the research buildings. The sale to the University came about as a result of a report on the state of marine-biological research on the west-coast of Sweden. Kristineberg is now part of a research centre called Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences.

The sale ended an era that began in 1877, when the Academy, through a donation from A. F. Regnell, established a zoological station on the west coast of Sweden. Kristineberg came to provide an excellent environment from the researcher’s scientific as well as social point of view – researchers returning year after year with their families have brought about a tight knitted community. In a rather isolated setting a long way away from Stockholm and indeed any larger town, there was a mixture of professors, students – male and female, researchers, as well the families of the researchers and professors.   Research in anatomy, cells etc was done on the findings of the Gullmarsfjord and its surroundings. Collected specimens were prepared and sent to universities, colleges, other educational institutes as well as teaching hospitals.

It wasn’t the first time the Academy handed over one of its research stations and it probably won’t be the last. The Center for History of Science has its origins in just such a parting of ways – when the library of the Academy was handed over to Stockholm University. However, we can argue that this is the first time that a conscious effort has been made to evaluate archival material as well as scientific instruments so as to provide a representative view of the research institutes work and activities.  Whether or not we have succeeded is another thing. With earlier examples of research stations changing hands, we would not be amiss thinking randomness has had a say in what ended up where, if anywhere.

The Center’s work at Kristineberg; the inventories and the considerations at the basis of our appraisals

The Center was given the task of evaluating archival material and scientific instruments at the Station, and the inventory was carried out through 2007 and 2008. The task of evaluating was actually written into the contract between the Gothenburg University and the Academy. Normally the University would have had to argue for what they might need to borrow, so as to make the transition into the new organization smoother. For some reason this was not to be the case this time. This in one sense made it more complicated for us, forcing us to argue in a more articulate way than would otherwise have been necessary. You could also see it as an opportunity, albeit forced upon us, to ponder our reasons of appraisal. From the Center the following people were involved; Karl Grandin (director), Maria Asp (archivist), Jonas Häggblom (conservator) and Anne Miche de Malleray (archivist). At a later stage Margit Forsberg, conservator, was involved in moving the material to Stockholm.

Very simply put, at the basis of our appraisal is the purpose of the Center – to promote research within the field of history of science, mainly with the Academy and the activities of its research institutes as the starting-point. Identifying documents as well as objects which reflect different aspects of how Kristineberg has functioned as one of the Academy’s research institutes was therefore a starting-point for the inventory and process of appraisal.

Documents

Older series from Kristineberg are already kept at the Center so similar types of documents were generally moved to Stockholm. Some of these series will be re-evaluated now that the archive as a whole is being catalogued. A tricky question was primary research material. The inventory turned up this kind of material from the 1960’s and onwards, records stuffed away in closet-like spaces. The funny looks I got when rummaging around these closet-like rooms with the shelves actually falling down on top of me did change, when I started asking questions about the primary research material we found. There were still scientists around who knew how to value the research material and they could vouch for the research being of good scientific quality. Given the interest in environmental changes over time, being able to compare samples from thirty, forty years back can be of great value to scientific research today. An example of this is to be found at the subarctic Abisko Scientific Research Station, which has been measuring temperature, snow, humidity etc since early 1900’s.  Of course, you have to know about the data before you can use it. Our suggestion at Kristineberg/Sven Lovén has been for the material to remain at the Station until such a time that the original material is no longer of any interest. Our hope is that the data actually will be made available to the other scientists and used by them.
Documents stemming from a joint venture between Gothenburg University and the Academy have remained in the hands of the University. The reason being two-fold – the project will continue under the auspices of the University and the University falls under the Freedom of Information Act. Other fonds were also present at the Station. Where a creator of the records was to be found we contacted them, or left it to Gothenburg University to make the contact. In cases where there was no creator to be found, and there was a close connection to the Academy, we transferred the archive to the Academy.

Instruments

The selection process concerning scientific instrument of historical interest is formed by the ambition to have a varied selection over time, illustrating the organization and its activities in a proper way. The choice is of course restricted to the instruments that still remain, with an emphasis on older instruments.

Priority was given to objects with existing surrounding documentation and for which provenance could be established.

It is often difficult to find connections between documents and instruments.

You would think the purpose for, and the environment in which an instrument is used would influence the design of the instrument, instead instruments, over time, are often used by totally different categories of researchers and for different purposes than they were initially intended.

It is for instance difficult (or impossible) to tell by looking at ordinary laboratory utensils or instruments how they have been used in the specific research activities at the station. Interviews were made with remaining staff and this did in some aspects enlighten us, but a lot of the instruments had been modified or used by people that worked only temporarily at the station. Information on who has used the instrument and for what purpose was no longer available.

A lot of the objects found at the station were more or less ordinary fishing equipment – in these cases we found no need to include the actual items in our collection. Photo documentation was considered to be sufficient.
How “nice” an object looks is also something that has influenced what has remained – or not – at the Station.  Old microscopes in shiny mahogany cases face smaller risk of being thrown away than a dirty object no one knows the name of. When we did the inventory, the remaining staff was happy to show us old chairs and shelves but shrugged when asked about strange glass vessels with attached tubes.

Out of more than a hundred objects we selected around thirty to be transferred to our repositories. Most of them were instruments we or the staff could identify and although many of them were older types, they had been used for a long period of time and could be considered as standard equipment for the research at the Kristineberg station. Objects transferred were e.g. microscopes, microtomes, PH-meter, magnifiers, photometers, water carriers, dredges etc. In addition to this we did a lot of photo documentation of the things we left behind. Old items that were of little (if any) scientific historical interest will remain at the station and will probably be used in exhibitions about the station.

We also consider the environment itself as well as the buildings of the station to be of great historical interest. However, this is beyond our assignment.  We have thus initiated and encouraged contact between the staff of Gothenburg University and the Museum of Bohuslän (the typical west coast region where the station is situated), and hopefully they will be able to form a project where the buildings and the surroundings will be fully documented.

In what way were we caught in the middle?

So far we have mainly focused on the more formal and traditionally archival aspects of our work. In fact, our work was much complicated by the mixed emotions of the staff and researchers at the Station towards the new organization as well as towards the old. The Secretariat as well as the deciding bodies of the Academy is positioned in Stockholm, and there have been clashes of interest both in the past and in the present time between Stockholm, “the Academy”, and the Centre, as opposed to the Periphery, “Kristineberg”, the west-coast or indeed the countryside. Clashes have been due to economical differences (i.e. who controls the money), differences in working conditions and general misunderstandings due to lack of communication – real or imagined.

An article published in a local newspaper, Bohuslänningen, described our work (mainly) with the instruments. The choice of headline, “Old instruments being moved to Stockholm”, and then, in slightly smaller text, “No resources to exhibit them at Kristineberg”, reflects the discussion and conflict between the Centre and the Periphery, or in this case, Stockholm and Kristineberg/the countryside. The headline implies that the instruments are taken away from their proper home and that resources are drained to the Centre.

We would often find ourselves initially being looked upon as representatives of the Academy, Kristineberg being something other than and even opposed to the Academy. In this particular role we were seen as a threat, as coming down to salvage the best bits, as stealing the history of the Station, indeed their identity. As time passed this attitude towards us would change somewhat.

Sometimes it seemed we were seen as a possible relief-channel for the staff – rather than turn to the management of the Academy or the University they would convey their worries resulting from the changing organization to us.  Initially we were seen as grave-diggers or pirates salvaging and possibly looting, but through our work we believe that we came to function as a combination of counselors as well as keepers of the Station’s history/identity.

Very often it was a case of feeling as if something was taken away, something unspecified. When we packed the instruments instead of leaving an empty space in the glass-cabinet, Margit Forsberg, our conservator, put similar instruments in. When asked if they could see what we had changed we received comments on the books having been moved about and that it looked a little untidy. In other words, no one seemed to realize we had swapped the instruments. But there were also quite strong a reaction to photo’s being removed, photo’s which most certainly have great historical and emotional value but were kept under bad conditions. We made digital copies of the photos for the Station.  We perceived the strong reactions towards the removal of the photos as very symbolic, a visible, tangible change that one could react to.

Can the role as the “middle-man” influence our performance as professional archivists and if so, is this necessarily a bad thing or can we make it work in our favour?

As “middle-men” we were initially greeted with some suspicion, especially when arriving with the management of the Academy. When approached by us, those not happy with the changes tended to channel their discontent. This was mainly true of people high up in the organization. For instance we were stopped from inventorying some areas.

Often, change in an organization is perceived as something coming from above, above ones head, impossible to influence. As archivists, with our particular interest in the history of the Station and its earlier as well as present activities, we became an opportunity for the staff to define their identity, history and function. We were interested in what they had done and were doing, in all aspects of the everyday life of the Station. This process of definition was helpful to us as it clarified working procedures, routines etc.  In the best of worlds this may also work as a starting-point for the staff and researchers to redefine their identity in the new organization. In the best of worlds…

Our work also brought about contact with people who were no longer actively engaged in the work of the Station, but were the keepers of important archival material and information. 

As regards the objects, mainly scientific instruments, more than is usually the case our evaluation had to be based on well-founded arguments and discussions, so as not to cause more conflict and bad-feeling than was already the case. This will benefit our work at the Center when processing the instruments – we will have plenty of information regarding provenance and function and we won’t have crowded the shelves with non-descript “stuff”.

Conclusion

We witnessed a possibly radical change in conditions of research; heard of the worries and hopes of the individuals. Very little of this will leave a mark in history in the form of documents. How people directly concerned have reacted to organizational change in earlier days, we don’t really know. As an example, the minutes of discussions held on change of terms of employment only show the formal expression of such change.  Should an archivist document the changes seen, and if so, what form should such documentation take and what possible historical value could such documentation have?  Would it be a case of an anthropological consideration, rather than a first-hand professional as well as personal account of an important change taking place? Would we simply risk getting the wrong end of the stick?

In conclusion, as archivists we can often come to deal with peoples’ lives in which they have invested much time and professional pride. And if we acknowledge and value this we can benefit in our own profession as archivists, providing even better service for historical researchers.




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