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Polly Parry

Never the twain shall meet? Personal papers of scientists and institutional archives
cehic 07/05/2009

Polly Parry
Polly Parry

This paper has come out of a conversation Peter [Harper] and I had last year in Stockholm [at the Future Proof IV Science Archives Meeting]. He asked me what we do about the papers of the scientists who work at the Natural History Museum. Specifically, he spoke about ‘eminent scientists’. That little word, eminent, (or alternatively ‘distinguished’, which is used on the website of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists,) is one that I will come back to later.

Peter’s view was that institutions such as the NHM were generally expected by the NCUACS to ‘look after their own’. However, logical though this might be, it is not a role that the Archives at the NHM have traditionally – or certainly not proactively – taken. When Peter asked me if I would talk about this as a paper, I confess I was initially reluctant, for the very reason that it is not something that is high on our agenda and we haven’t really addressed. However, as it turns out, writing this paper has forced me (and my team) to think about the issue of personal papers and what we really want to do – or possibly more pragmatically – can do about it. This paper will therefore present the questions that we have been asking ourselves, but not necessarily all the answers

Let me sketch out a brief portrait of the Museum, for those of you who don’t know it. The NHM was originally part of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. The natural history collections moved to a purpose-built site in South Kensington in 1881, becoming a completely separate museum 82 years later, in 1963. The building by Alfred Waterhouse, with its tall towers, cathedral-like entrance and blue and buff terracotta, is one of the landmarks of London, known to most people, I think, as the dinosaur museum.

It is however, far more than that, as anyone who works there will be eager to tell you. (In fact, they are shortly to begin filming a year in the life of the Museum for a TV series, with this in mind.) Of course there are the exhibition galleries, always heaving in the school holidays – we had 3.7 million visitors in 2008-2009 – and all the staff that come with running a major tourist attraction and indeed a large organisation of around 850 staff in a number of locations. But we also have a world-class scientific research institution behind the scenes. 350 scientists work in five departments (Zoology, Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy and Palaeontology), curating the collection of over 70.6 million specimens, and conducting ground-breaking research. Science staff are divided into researchers and curators (who also do research of their own). There is also the department of Library & Information Services comprising five subject libraries, IT and Archives & Records Management.

As part of our funding comes from government, we are classed as a non-departmental public body, and our records are considered to be public records. The National Archives is therefore our overseeing body for management of records, and we have the status of a Place of Deposit, which means we can keep our records on site.

So, holding that complex organisation in the back of your minds, let’s turn to the question of personal papers. The fact that I felt I needed to define them is perhaps indicative of my lack of familiarity with them. Let us say that personal papers are the sum total of someone’s life, both work and private life.

What personal papers can undoubtedly provide is a much rounder picture of an individual, with their life outside work alongside their work activities, the development of their ideas, perhaps even some otherwise unrecorded information about the collections on which they worked and the Museum as they experienced it. In addition of course, there are potential insights into the history of science and the broader social and cultural context of an individual existing at a particular point in time.

Indeed, an example of the way attitudes to science are changing at the Museum is the New Perspectives project, exploring the potential of the science and library collections as a resource for arts and humanities academic research. To further this aim on a more formal basis it is intended to establish a Centre for the Arts and Humanities at the Museum. Some might argue that the Museum should concentrate on science, but such is the Zeitgeist. The first tangible outcome of New Perspectives is an oral history project, Museum Lives, run in conjunction with Kingston University. Around 50 current and former staff members are being interviewed over the next 18 months or so, about their lives at the Museum, how they got there, the collections on which they have worked and the research that they have undertaken. It is particularly the personal reminiscences of their time at the Museum that I’m interested in, a classic example of putting flesh on the skeleton of the formal administrative material we have in the Archives. Whilst not personal papers in the usual sense, the recordings and transcripts of these interviews will be coming to the Archives, ultimately to be made available to the public in full. These can fulfil a similar kind of role to personal papers – a very personal view of the world, and more specifically, of the Museum.

Peter posed a philosophical question to me – is the notion of personal papers as valid in the museum environment as it would be in a British university? Being conveniently located next door to a university, Imperial College, I went and discussed this with Anne Barrett, whom many of you will know. The conclusion we came to was that it is equally valid in both, and indeed there is little to distinguish the Museum scientists from Imperial researchers apart from the teaching duties of the latter, and the effect that that might have on the direction of their work. There is perhaps a profile issue – lots of people are unaware we even have scientists at the Museum, but many of them are significant in their fields. Indeed, it may even be possible to argue that personal papers are particularly significant in organisations such as ours if that is the only place someone is able to work on their specialism, so they are very closely tied to the institution and the development of its work.

The Museum does have collections of personal papers. I mentioned that there are five subject libraries; each of those has a manuscript collection, and these contain many personal papers, although generally not those of Museum employees. However, there are a number of collections relating to Museum staff. For example, Richard Owen (first head of the museum in South Kensington), Albert Günther (his contemporary, Keeper of Zoology) and Arthur Smith Woodward (Keeper of Palaeontology, involved in the Piltdown Man hoax). I believe the logic behind taking them into the Library rather than the Archives was that the papers included material relating to activities outside the Museum – i.e. personal papers – and therefore the Archives was considered too Museum-centric a location for them. To be fair, the Library acquisition of collections such as Owen and Günther pre-dated the existence of the Archives, but there has been no subsequent review of their location.

So, to the NHM Archives. When we describe ourselves to people we tend to say things like ‘we look after the records of the Museum’s business’, the administrative records, the papers about the specimens rather than the specimens themselves (that’s a common one). We see the Archives as the corporate memory, capturing for posterity what ‘the Museum’ has done. When the Archives were first established in the 1970s, their sole purpose was to serve the central administration, not the science departments, let alone individuals. We do now collect the records of the science departments, but individuals are still a moot point.

While it is perfectly true that any organisation is made up of individual members of staff, I think there is also an element of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. On this basis therefore, taking the position that we are the administrative archives of the Museum first and foremost, a number of questions occur.

Firstly, should we mix the two elements, administrative and personal? Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I get a sense that there is a distinction between the two types of collections and that archivists end up gaining expertise in one or the other. As ‘administrative archivists’, would we risk not doing the papers justice through lack of experience? I know a skill can be learnt, but other people might do it better. If we did mix the two, would we dilute the archive by taking a little bit of both rather than focusing wholeheartedly on collecting the administrative records? However, individuals’ papers can throw light on corporate history – as we are asking staff to do verbally in the oral history project – and thus in fact enhance the archives’ value to a wider audience.

So secondly, if we did decide to gather beyond a strict administrative records remit, do we need to draw a line, and if so, where? Where does the personal start, especially if a lot of work or subject related activities are undertaken in a scientist’s spare time – it often seems that their specialism is actually their life, or really something they’re only doing because of being at the Museum. Should we just take material which, while not necessarily wholly Museum-based, relates to someone’s specialist interest or overall career, and discard children’s homemade Christmas cards, newspaper cuttings collections about the first moonwalk, and so on.

Thirdly, how proactive should we be? What happens currently at the Museum is that occasionally we will have material dumped on us, via the department where the scientist used to work. Someone will have cleared out an office, garage or attic after their death and brought the material back to the Museum (if indeed it was taken home – some scientists don’t leave even after they’re retired). Current unresolved cases include 10 box files from a garage (deposited since I began writing this paper), and a grand 15 records management boxes and 6 further large plastic crates emptied out of an attic. The subsequent hours of sorting this has entailed would suggest that leaving it to chance is not the best way of managing the process (in fact, ‘managing’ is not really the right word). However, waiting to see what we get has the advantage of limiting the overall number of collections that need to be dealt with simply by natural wastage, since not everyone will think to contact the Archives.

On the other hand, if we plan proactively and take part in the initial contact and transfer process, perhaps we could avoid the whole attic scenario and just get what is actually of interest to us in the first place, saving the hours of sorting afterwards. But this would require a great deal of time up front on the part of the Archives staff, and time is something we do not have a great deal of at present. At least once the material has arrived in our stores we can deal with it when we get round to it – not an admirable situation I admit, but a realistic one.

Fourthly, if we do decide to be more proactive, we have to deal with the reality that we simply cannot take everything from every scientist. At the beginning of this paper I mentioned the eminent or distinguished scientists whose papers are catalogued by NCUACS. Could we restrict ourselves by just targeting our own eminent scientists and leave the rest of the staff to serendipity? Although, if they are really distinguished, perhaps other organisations with which they are connected would be interested in their papers, which could remove the onus from the Museum – although only at the risk of losing the context of an individual’s work.

But how should we define eminent? Fellows of the Royal Society or other learned bodies? High rankers in the bestseller lists or otherwise well-known by the general public and thus of benefit to the reputation of the Museum? Heads of Department and other senior staff? Notable Museum characters? People who are heavily involved in topics of the day such as climate change? Perhaps all of the above. The problem is that it can all be rather subjective, relying on the archivist’s intuition and a sense of what or who might be interesting in the future. I suppose this is always the lot of the archivist to some extent, but somehow it seems particularly challenging when dealing with individuals rather than impersonal corporate records.

Moreover, as an institutional archive, should we not be interested in all our staff? In theory at least, everyone is contributing to the Museum’s work on an equal basis. So how do we measure the worth of one individual’s papers against another? To have to choose feels like an invidious, or uncomfortable, position to be in. Besides, who should be involved in the decision? Archivists are not scientists so will not necessarily be aware of the significance of an individual’s work. The scientists themselves will usually think either everything must be kept (a common issue amongst Museum types) or, conversely, that there’s very little of interest to anyone else and it should all be thrown away (which they sometimes take upon themselves to do). Perhaps colleagues who know about the individual’s work or heads of departments can offer advice on the scientific value, but again, there’s always a risk of bias. Although we have not used them, this is where the NCUACS has been able to give a broader view to assist decision-making.

Underlying all this – not least in the title of my paper – you may be able to detect a reluctance to engage with proactive collection of personal papers. This has a great deal to do with the daily reality of the NHM Archives. Although our stores are almost completely full, and there is no real option for expansion in the near future, we are not getting all the corporate records that we should, let alone the Museum-based research records (although we are working on this). Along with everywhere else, the Archives & RM team is also seriously understaffed for the range of responsibilities we now have. This means that even the material that we do get takes years if not decades to be processed. Can we justify proactively extending our collecting remit to include personal papers, if we cannot properly care for what we already have? As the corporate archive, therefore, should we not direct our limited resources towards corporate records rather than individuals’?

Perhaps I’m being a little misleading, as we do have some collections of what are effectively personal papers already in the Archives. In fact, we have a whole section called ‘Unofficial Archives’ which contains this type of material – although on reviewing the content most seemed to relate directly to Museum work. While other individuals’ papers have been added to a department’s fonds under the section in which they worked, this separate section was apparently created because the papers were deposited from outside the Museum, presumably from family, rather than arriving at the Archives through some sort of internal records management or office clearout.

The level of awareness amongst the Museum scientists about the Archives varies considerably. Many frequently use us for research into collections that they are working on, so this does tend to be curators rather than researchers. Many, however, do not. The concept of depositing their papers – by which we really mean the material they have created in the course of their work at the Museum – is being promoted by our records management implementation project and, as of this year, a leaver’s protocol. This goes out with the official letter from Human Resources (Personnel) about arrangements for their departure, and advises them on dealing with records – most importantly, to contact Archives & RM. Several retiring scientists have been in touch as a result of this. We have also asked Human Resources to tell us when someone is retiring, so that we can be proactive, should we wish to. However, this still doesn’t always get the results we want. Shortly before he retired I spoke to Richard Fortey, one of our palaeontologists who specialises in trilobites and has written a number of popular books including a ‘personal’ history of the Museum. While he was, I think, fully intending to sort out his papers for us (at least those that are Museum-related) before he went, he hasn’t yet got round to it; he is, after all, still very active so may well be using his papers. But essentially, our current efforts, such as they are, in getting material from scientists are based around their leaving the Museum, rather than after their death, as we don’t generally have contact with their families. Former colleagues of deceased scientists, however, may do – this is how we ended up with the collection now housed in 15 boxes and 6 crates – so this is an avenue we could pursue should we wish to.

After turning these questions over, I and my team have managed to come to some tentative conclusions about what our policy is likely to be. While we absolutely appreciate the value, and indeed the vulnerability, of personal papers, we have to have some strict criteria, albeit with some discretion in their application. I’m sure others will come to different conclusions, and indeed our decision may be disappointing, but this is not set in stone and will be reviewed in the future.

So, we will take the papers of scientists where they relate to their career, both within the Museum and elsewhere, including correspondence with peers. If with all this comes some very personal material, possibly even ephemera such as programmes and newscuttings, we will most likely keep those as well as they can be easily absorbed.

However, if we are just given a collection of ephemera or material that has nothing to do with the Museum work or even career of a scientist, it would be very unlikely that we take it. The 10 box files I mentioned before are a case in point – most of them, on inspection, related to other members of the family, and the few boxes that did contain papers belonging to the scientist were almost all to do with his alumni associations from school, university and the First World War; interesting to some no doubt, but nothing to do with his work.

Even if there were nowhere else for someone’s personal papers to go, we would still need to apply the key criterion of whether the majority of the material is science-related. We simply have to be realistic about what we can deal with without diverting scarce resources from collecting and processing corporate records.

I cannot see us being much more proactive in the near future. We might make a particular effort with scientists who are ‘well-known’ or ‘notable’ at the Museum, but this definition is quite vague and will need further thought.

Primarily therefore, I see the NHM Archives in their current incarnation as an institutional or corporate archive. Perhaps we are laying ourselves open to accusations of abdication of responsibility but my first concern is for the organisational records. Once they are more fully sorted – and we have resolved our storage space issue – then we can turn to the undoubted treasure trove that is the personal papers of scientists.

So, never the twain shall meet? Perhaps for now. While I fully agree that personal papers have much to offer an institutional archive, at the Natural History Museum the current priority is the organisation’s records, and it will be a while before personal papers are likely to be collected on a formal, regular basis.