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Anne Barrett

The Pivotal Role of the College Archives

I will talk first about the academic heritage generally and then my personal interpretation of it from the point of view of my work at Imperial College in our centenary year of 2007.

But let’s start with some images of papier mache teaching models snakes, related to what sparked this paper off which was Menno’s discussion paper on university museums – these teaching models could be said to be museum objects. They still bring interest and pleasure to many people – their use has changed instead of being science teaching models, they are objects of history of science and of materials science. For historians the questions of how were they used? why constructed? and for both parties how constructed? and for materials science what is their composition and how do we ensure their preservation (Also a question for archivist or keepers of this bit of academic heritage and record of science.)

Leaving the 19th century, and going on to 1907, this is an image of the first building constructed for the new Institution Imperial College, where these models found a new home.

This session was suggested by Menno Polak following his work with Josie Calffe on their paper Beyond University Museums: The Scope of Academic Heritage and the Record of Science   Having read the paper, I thought it important to discuss interpretations of the phrases academic heritage and record of science in a general and then particular way.

To look at the word science : The interpretation and application of the word science have been debated by archivists of scientific institutions over many years, (most notably in the SUV, Scientific Universities Section of the International Council on Archives) in the context of explaining their work.

Purists tended to oppose including social sciences in an interpretation of science, but the interpretation in the Calffe / :Polak paper which is that  of science as ‘including all scholarly pursuits’ takes us a stage further in allowing the dictionary definition of science to overtake our arguments. Science  is construed in the Concise Oxford Dictionary in various ways, including ‘an organized body of knowledge on a subject’ and what it describes as the ‘archaic use: to mean knowledge of any kind’, so Calffe and Polak have a good point in the context of present discussions about academic heritage.

Now taking the phrase academic heritage – Calffe and Polak look at how synonymous this is with the record of science and if it is a fruitful concept. In their conclusion they write that the concept of academic heritage is useful as it covers the entire range of the record of science and the history of the university. How this is arranged and within which heritage discipline – museum, library or archive can be immaterial, as long as the material is accessible.  There is much to be debated within their paper, but the idea that there is a discipline of academic heritage is useful to archivists and related specialists as a term in itself. it is a term that is more easily understood by the public and by funding bodies – the word archives, does not, sadly, have the same impact as the word ‘heritage’ – thanks to genealogy and the many broadcasts about tracing families and the history of archaeological sites and individual ordinary houses, the public understand the word heritage and it conjours up a meaning that the word archives doesn’t, including I hazard here, a sense of belonging and ownership. Who owns academic heritage, the university, the professional or the creator? My discussion on Imperial’s centenary may give some clue to this.

I will take science to encompass all that is done at Imperial College. It is increasingly difficult to differentiate between science, technology and medicine because the disciplines overlap, collaborate and borrow bits from each other, hence the disciplines of bioengineering and biomedical sciences, even physics and music is run as a joint degree. (There is still pure science undertaken for example, in maths and physics, but ultimately it is intended that the outcomes of this work have an application.)

That Calffe and Polak say they come from library and archive backgrounds, but are straying into museum territory could be interpreted as an indication that there is a blurring of distinctions in our own disciplines and that those in the professions supporting  ‘scholarly pursuits’ are seeing their work as becoming interchangeable, which is a view that has recently been promulgated in the UK, and goes hand in hand with an expansive view of what science encompasses, though the all round heritage professional is perhaps a topic for future exploration.

When governments get involved in matters, it is clear that a change has occurred, and that not wishing to seem behind the times, programmes and  funding become available. Illustrative of this is in terms of academic heritage as a scholarly pursuit is a programme being funded jointly by two UK research councils, on science and heritage. This follows evidence to the House of Lords, (which is as I am sure you know, the second tier of government in the UK Parliament) Select Committee (a parliamentary committee set up to investigate a particlar subject) on Science and Technology. One of the areas the committee has recently investigated is what the impact of cultural, scientific and technological disciplines working together on cultural heritage would be:

The outcome is that the AHRB (Arts and Humanities Research Board) and the ESRC (Environment and Science Research Council) is to jointly fund, to the tune of £8.1 million, a Science and Heritage strategic research programme. To be led by Professor May Cassar,the programme is to be finalised by May 2008. Professor Cassar is Professor of Sustainable Heritage and Director of the Centre of Sustainable Heritage at the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies Her research interests include the impact of climate change on the historic environment and is particularly interested in how cultural heritage adapts to changing conditions.

The Science and Heritage research programme will provide a locus for those wishing to engage with science and heritage, in order to build capacity and to disseminate knowledge widely so that our cultural heritage is in better shape to confront the challenges of the 21st century.

The two main tasks to be undertaken by the programme are:

·                     To increase our understanding and improve the resilience of cultural heritage by funding high quality research

·                     To develop the heritage science community - by funding networks and other awareness-raising and capacity-building activities

This substantial investment of research funds will begin to make right the chronic shortage of investment in research and capacity building in cultural heritage which in so many forms –museums, galleries, archives, libraries and historic buildings contributes so much to the education, leisure and wellbeing of communities and visitors alike. The programme will allow UK academics and heritage managers to work together to better understand and protect the vast array of artefacts, buildings and places that make up the UK’s cultural heritage.

"This funding provides the best opportunity yet to develop further the pool of expertise across research disciplines with deeper understanding and new knowledge to future proof the UK’s cultural heritage."

Here we are, ahead of the game, thanks to Peter Harper and his foresight in starting these meetings in 2003, Future Proofing by considering issues in our own way.

To return to the phrase academic heritage – this phrase will mean different things to those that hear it – to some it will mean scholarship and the work produced to move on issues to explain things not understood in all areas of life, be it archaeology, Shakespeare’s texts, laws of physics or medical matters. To others it will mean physical objects such as in university and learned society museums.

In terms of an institution, academic heritage is that which its identity is composed of.

Academic heritage has both physical and virtual representations as it evolves through time – objects in use - and with no current use - as in a museum or archive and written papers, are physical representations of academic heritage, as are the products of the academic world we come into contact with everyday. However, the heritage also resides in people’s minds as memory – it doesn’t all get written down or translated into action – peoples memories of the institution of how it was organised and how work was done before the present are the virtual representation. Tapping into this by interviews, videos and websites creates a tangible virtual representation of them. Put the memories together with contemporary interviews, images or papers and the virtual representation of the academic heritage is created.

 Academic heritage will have macro and micro implications to the institution and to the public –

    * the macro – the things people can identify that affect their everyday lives immediately and obviously like
          o clothes dyes; the British aniline dye industry was begun at Imperial with Perkin Purple;
          o elevated trains – Eric Laithwaite Professor invented the linear induction motor and so the wheel-less train powered by the magnetic field the motor produced - as seen in the bullet trains of Japan – a lost engineering opportunity for the British because the then government withdrew funding –
          o discovery of penicllin and so antibiotics used against previously fatal diseases. Sir Alexander Fleming of St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, part of Imperial College’s Faculty of Medicine , developed for therapeutic use by Sir Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey; Chain later became Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial

the micro –

o        the minutiae of physics eg the Higgs bosun, which if it can be proved it exists is a particle that may give others mass; (Jim, Tejinder Virdee Imperial College)

o        a mathematical conundrum eg conformal mapping, a key theoretical tool used by mathematicians, engineers and scientists to translate information from a complicated shape to a simpler circular shape so that it is easier to analyse with implications for measurement of air flow patterns over aeroplane wing span (Darren Crowdy Imperial College)

o        carbohydrate biochemistry and chemistry eg carbohydrate polymer structures that lie on the surface of larger molecules The role of the sugar chains molecules in stimulating human immune responses could help the design of new vaccines against, for example, parasites (Ann Dell Imperial College)

to some academic heritage it will conjour up images of a tweed jacketed grizzled academic huddled over his desk producing pages of crabbed writing with a fountain pen, to others a ‘mad’ scientist, white lab coat flapping’ wild hair’ big spectacles pouring over a complex system of bubbling contorts.


To those fantasies let us add the reality – or at least as it is at Imperial College – academics do sit in offices full of papers and books, but most now will have a PC in front of them and also a laptop on the side recharging its battery for their next foray out for research, meetings and lab work. The labs are well organised and full of high tech equipment, and hard working groups of students, post docs and academic scientists and engineers.

And so I come to Imperial College Celebrating a Centenary of Identity

There were two strands to the Centenary, one was the celebration of 100 years since the original constituent Colleges joined to form Imperial College of Science and Technology (medicine came in 1988) and the other was the cesseding from the University of London, to form a University in its own right, Imperial College London for short or Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine for official purposes.

One thing we did know was that the Queen had been invited to unveil the new Charter and had accepted. Everything else had to organised.

Planning for the centenary celebrations began in my department 5 years before the event, though this didn’t seem to galvanise the rest of College and many events were thought of at the end of the year before!

 It could not be otherwise than the College archives should have a pivotal role in the centenary – it is the keeper of the College identity – and hold that which proves it – the documentation  of 100 years. (Preceding years too of course of the constituent colleges.)

An academic history of Imperial was an essential part of promoting the College identity, showing what it had done and how it is continuing to develop.

We wanted an academic historian of science to write this, one with an easy interesting style and the History of Science Department and I knew just the person, one of their overseas colleagues and a regular researcher of mine, Dr Hannah Gay, who had knowledge of Imperial but was not so close that she could not be impartial. Hannah Gay is an Imperial chemistry alumna from the 1960s who had spent her career in Canada and had become an historian of science, gradually her research had brought her back to Imperial and she had begun working first informally with the History of Science Department. She spent the equivalent of two years sitting in the archives – I gave her access to all the files, and we discussed issues, as she wrote chapters back in Canada she would forward them to me and the History of Science department for comment. She revised chapters having received comments and came over again looked once more at material, she visited departments and spoke to individuals to gain the views of others. But many senior people, including past Rector’s have commented that without well-organised archives the book could not have been written – so the keepers of the College identity or the academic heritage have been proven to be a very important part of the institution. What we have as a result of the retention of the material and the research into it and the writing is a 500 page work, with illustrations, which has been very well received. Some people have not agreed with how Hannah portrayed their departments at various times, but this was expected and she has been able to back up her text with information from the archives.

So academic heritage is open to interpretation; how objective is it – in the end the archival files and the museum objects are what we can use to make a retrospective picture, memory can be fallible, but we cannot disregard it completely it is the view of someone who had an experience, it may not tally with the documented view and memories change over time, but is surely a valid addition to the whole story? Selection, whether in relation to memory or physical material comes into what remains from a hundred years of academic heritage.

In Imperial’s case and probably many other archives, chance plays a part in selection – chance that ledgers, photographs and papers are kept either by the institution or by individuals. As I have mentioned in previous papers, it was not until the 1930s that Imperial set up a muniments room and not until the 1950s that an archivist was appointed. However the constituent colleges had very strong alumni associations and kept the record of College going by retaining material and depositing it later and kept the knowledge of alumni going by producing a printed ledger of student names, their Imperial awarded qualifications and at least first destination job. This still stands me in good stead when amongst others, genealogists require information about relatives. So it isn’t just a question about what is kept, but what is created in the first place that contributes to a successful centenary celebration.

For the Centenary celebrations, Communications staff and I discussed what College might do generally and the archives particularly and what format the output would take. Initially we decided that I would interview past Rectors (Vice Chancellors) and College Secretaries, (the principal administrative officer) for their recollections of their time in the jobs and their legacy to College. These turned out to be great fun, very productive and valuable for the celebrations and will be for future archival purposes. We carried out the interviews in early 2006, with me asking questions and the subjects being filmed answering them. One Rector chose to be interviewed with his wife as they felt they had worked at College together, this was Lord Flowers (whose papers Peter’s unit have listed – with more to come as Flowers is still working). The Flowers both feel that Lord Flowers’ time at Imperial was the best in his career, which is a huge accolade given the high ranking career he has had and continues to have.

In other centenary discussions, I proposed – in plenty of time - a give-away product, a DVD of decades of College with salient points and images, extracts from films and interviews, to be produced jointly with the media services staff. This we thought would be enjoyed by current and past College members and would be an ideal gift at the many overseas alumni dinners that were to take place. Then project management principles were brought in to manage the year, which resulted in a delay in decision making and after that a further delay for risk analysis – in the end we made an interactive website, which can still be seen at:

Because of the delay in the decision making, this meant I had 6 weeks from November 2006 – with a 2 week College Christmas closure - to write this for launch in January – fortunately the January 1st launch was deemed impossible – the actual launch date was January 30th – this included a talk by the Rector with me contributing the historical part – the main part of the talk in fact,  to the Rector’s launch speech – I was richly rewarded by my name being ‘in lights’ that is a power point slide naming and thanking me separately. This was great publicity for the keeper of the College identity and the academic heritage.

What assisted my writing of the web pages was that I had already prepared brief notes on items for possible inclusion for the DVD, which ran in ten year spans, beginning with 19th century antecedents and starting the decade system properly with 1907. These notes were to be my structure for the web pages, I had only to write the information and select images or quotes.

When I say only, there was a lot more to it than that, whilst I had written a great deal about College over the 17 years of my work as archivist that needed heavy editing as it was created for another purpose – an in depth enquiry answer or an exhibition caption for example  – the web pages demanded a style of their own.

I did have a mishap - One Friday evening I was shutting down and saving 3 decades written during the previous 2 weeks -  it isn’t simple to write and make clean breaks in decades - projects and people’s work run over, so there was always information to put in ahead of detailed work and to check back on, when I realised I was one short - the 1960s was missing – it had vanished. It was nowhere to be found, trying to keep calm I rang ICT, despite it being after 6pm I did get an answer, but short of interrogating my hard drive for hours it could not be returned. I therefore had to concede that it was to be rewritten, but could not face it until the following week – communications were a little disappointed, but not as much as me. I don’t know what happened, but ever since that incident, important documents have been backed up on my data stick as I go along.

Along with writing the text I had to get images scanned, we hit on the idea of using one of your trusty temps – the son of another member of staff not in our department, who had worked for us in his university vacations – he had not then got a proper job, so we set him to work with piles of envelopes full of photographs and the scanner and so made them digital objects – one of our great difficulties has always been tracing copyright – so often we are given items without details.  Whenever copyright is mentioned it creates a groan – form us as well – it is not always easy to trace and it is even harder to explain this to Communications. The solution you may think would be to use only copyright cleared material – not always possible. However, we now have most of the images scanned and they were available for use throughout the year.

A second temp, Jon  – the son of an Icelandic archivist known to many of us Magnus Gudmusson, a recent Imperial postgraduate, also proper jobless -assisted us with creating a Centenary Compendium using software provided by another archivist known to many of you, Gavan McCarthy. The intention is to add to this system, which provides a hierarchical structure in which to view the development of Imperial in its web pages, but this is a separate project from the Centenary website.

We invited alumni to donate or loan material for the centenary and to send in their own memories or points of view, this gave us a haul of material including student notebooks, field trip photographs and posters and some interesting views which have been posted on the website.

Departments asked for historical information and photographs for the banners each was asked to make for the centenary – much debate went on about what should be represented from the material old and modern.

Catering gamely recreated for the modern palate a menu from a dinner held by the Royal School of Mines Association. They served over 1000 lunches at the original price on 30th January. Catering staff attempted to further create the ambiance by dressing in period costume.

The Women’s Club held an Edwardian themed dinner in June the elegant Norman Shaw house on Campus, where again the 1907 menu was adapted and students from the orchestra played relevant pieces of music by composers such as Elgar. Further banners were commissioned by the Women’s Club and as I have been working on Women at Imperial, I came up with these.

A huge effort was made to involve everyone – the theme remained Edwardian, but with modern touches, such as at the staff party held one afternoon at the South Kensington campus. It was staggering in its scope and a very enjoyable event – with a choice of food and drink stalls, a traditional funfair with games of skill, a croquet lawn, a succession of bands across Exhibition Road in Princes’ Garden square. A marquee served traditional afternoon teas, including cucumber sandwiches and waitress service. Staff were given wrist bands with tags allowing some free food and drink which could be topped up for cash and it made a very jolly and cohesive event.

In July Her Majesty the Queen visited to open a new BioMedical research centre and to see the robotic operation equipment, to unveil a statue of her predecessor Queen Victoria and to unveil the new College Charter. At this splendid event 4 Fellows were created and wore academic gowns the colour of Perkin purple. One of whom was Prince Philip

This heralded a new era in Imperial’s life – everyone involved in the centenary owns their own bit of academic heritage, not least involvement in the beginning of a new university.

So who owns Academic Heritage at Imperial? it seems anyone who has worked and studied there – each activity over a hundred years is a strand making up the whole organism and creates the institutional identity. Celebrating the centenary itself  has not only revealed this insight, but has of course provided new memories and new material for accessioning into the archives as something for those who come in the future to look back to, when the next 100 years of the record of science and academic heritage forming Imperial’s identity are celebrated.