Tag Archive for: Royal Society

Senior Research Associate: Reconstructing Sloane

Research and Project Management, Reconstructing Sloane (2011 – present)

 

The vast Enlightenment-era collections amassed by Sir Hans Sloane are the foundation-stone of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum. A major interdisciplinary digital humanities research project to virtually reunite and analyse Sloane’s collections and his own catalogue inventories is now being planned, led by curators and research staff of these institutions. I am collaborating with these colleagues to design, develop and resource the Reconstructing Sloane project. My own related research, investigating collections management as a knowledge producing practice in the early modern period, is supported by both Visiting Fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a Research Scholar Affiliation at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

 

Sloane’s early modern collections of natural history, ethnographia, antiquities, artworks, numismatics, books and manuscripts are now divided across the three world-class institutions which were created by his gift to the nation: the British Museum in Bloomsbury, the British Library in King’s Cross, and the Natural History Musem in South Kensington.  Over the 260 years since his death in 1753, the materials have followed the paths of the disciplines which they themselves in part had spawned: thus the integrity of the collections and their meaning as a coherent site of early modern intellectual practice has been slowly obscured.

Of course, the collections also changed a great deal, in their form and use, over Sloane’s own lifetime, as he was collecting internationally for some 70 years in a period of immense global and intellectual change. The 18th century is arguably the first period of globalisation, and the relationship between trade and intellectual life in this epoch is a subject of considerable interest in a wide range of humanities fields.  The world in which Sloane paid close attention to the messy business of organic life – irreducible to mathematics –  is also the world of Boyle and Hooke, of Locke and Newton, of Leeouwenhoek and Leibnitz.

This exciting project was first proposed in 2010, when a 350th anniversary of Sloane’s birth in 1660 was celebrated by the British Library with a conference. From Books to Bezoars was a wide-ranging two-day event that showed the astonishing breadth of Sloane’s work and influence, even today.  It was organised by Alison Walker, who has been the driving force behind the Sloane Printed Book Project, which aims to locate and identify all books owned and used by Sloane and subsequently bequeathed to what would become the British Library.  It was common practice then, as today, for libraries to sell off duplicate copies of books: a number of Sloane’s books, well used and full of highly significant marginal notes, were auctioned through the 18th and 19th century – no doubt considered at the time to be the grubbier of any two copies the Library owned!

Later that year, in August 2010, a meeting of curatorial and research staff from the British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, the Wellcome Library and beyond took place at the NHM under the auspices of its  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research. I was at that time seconded into CAHR as part of its small dynamic research development team, and for that meeting I collated an overview survey of the state of Sloane collections and research across the three institutions.

Before my secondment ended in Spring 2011, we organised several exploratory meetings internally and between the institutions, and the project quickly developed momentum.  Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project development roadmap is now the backbone of the undertaking.  My current research and project management work with the three national institutions picks up from there, and we are now working on project design and resourcing. A particularly exciting prospect is that of working with digital humanities colleagues to quite literally reconstruct, albeit virtually, Sloane’s intellectual world, and to explore what a deep history of ‘information science’ might look like.

Throughout 2012, with support from an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Science in Culture’ Networking Grant to the British Museum, the three institutions led some of the most exciting cross-disciplinary seminars and meetings ever to be held about early modern intellectual life and legacy.  These events brought together dozens of disciplinary fields and areas of curatorial expertise, showing just what can be done when museums and universities work together (recordings of many of the proceedings are available online from Backdoor Broadcasting).

 

 

At the Network meeting which took place at the British Museum, I led a breakout session about cataloguing as research, and research into cataloguing itself.  What is of interest to me with Sloane is the unique triangulation between history of science, history of collections, and history of the book – three fields I have always found highly productive.  Sloane’s world is one which could be called ‘pre-disciplinary,’ and requires a highly interdisciplinary team if we are to understand, in the 21st century, what exactly that might mean.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I first heard about Sloane from the man who first brought the history of collections to the attention of other humanities disciplines, Dr Arthur MacGregor.  Arthur edited the volume Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary (1994), which has become the bible of those of us working on the meanings and use histories of Sloane’s collections.  In a more recent publication, Arthur’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries (Yale 2007), we read:

“A parallel evolutionary process can be traced between the development of the cabinet and that of the catalogue.  More than mere inventories, catalogues had a dynamic of their own that contributed not only to the formal registration or recording of collections but also to their analysis and explication at several levels.  Furthermore, the catalogue developed a distinct literary and philosophical programme through which it evolved into a genre that, even if (at least normally) dependent on the collection, was more than merely reflective of it.”

I have been investigating the implications of these ‘evolutionary processes’ between the cabinet and the catalogue during research fellowship periods at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and as an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science of the University of Cambridge. This is essentially a study of collections management as science, and though my research remit is not limited to Sloane’s work alone, his meticulous attention to the documentation and organisation of his collection is a major focus.

 

 

Three Collaborative Doctoral Awards focusing on Sloane’s collections are now underway:

Collecting and Correspondence: Sloane’s Papers and Scientific Networks (Supervised by Dr Arnold Hunt, British Library and Dr Anne Goldgar, King’s College London)

Putting Nature in a Box: Sloane’s Vegetable Substances (Supervised by Dr Charlie Jarvis, Natural History Museum, and Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary University of London)

Visualizing Natural Knowledge: Sloane’s Albums of Natural History Drawings  (Supervised by Dr Kim Sloan, British Museum, and Dr Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London)

 

Further Links:  Sloane’s Treasures British Museum; Sloane’s Treasures Natural History Museum; British Library Foundation Collections; Sloane Printed Books Project; From Books to Bezoars; British Museum Collections Online; Backdoor Broadcasting Sloane Workshops Podcasts

[Image References: Onyx Cameo of a Goat (16th-17thc, Sloane Collections), British Museum; view of the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum; page spread from Sloane’s own catalogue of Miscellanies, British Museum; cabinet drawer (c1670), Centraal Museum, Utrecht.]

Science Voices, Museum Lives

Co-organiser, Science Voices: Scientists Speak About Science and Themselves, Royal Society, London (May 2011)

 

This conference explored the creation and use of historic recordings, bringing science and scientists to skilled historians and the general public through their own vibrant personal voices and testimony.  From oral history to collegial obituary, from witness seminar to ‘personal information files’, scientists are complementing the legacy and understanding of their work with more personal and in-depth records.  Some of these are developed with oral historians and others by scientific peers: how is this important material created and framed intellectually, as well as used by historians in conjunction with paper archives and scientific publications?

My co-organisers for this conference were Professor Brian Cathcart, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University and Dr Felicity Henderson, Events and Exhibitions Manager of the Centre for History of Science at the Royal Society. It was particularly satisfying to return as a researcher to the Royal Society ten years after I had been Development Manager there: it was during my tenure that I had first proposed a Centre for History of Science, and formulated a business plan for it. It is now a very dynamic group, with wonderful staff like Felicity.

The original impetus for the Science Voices conference was the major oral history project, Museum Lives, then underway at the Natural History Museum where I was working in the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research.

Museum Lives was an AHRC-funded research programme to record extensive interviews with Natural History Museum staff — 300 of whom are scientists — about their lives and work with the Museum and with natural history in general. The interviews form a capsule record of the past 30 years and more of developments in biology and biodiversity, climate change and conservation — both environmental and museological. This 30-year period spans everything from the sequencing of the genome to the advent of ubiquitous computing, from digital collections to the Darwin Centre.

Advances in digital recording technologies and in oral history techniques have rapidly increased the number of such projects in science fields. Concurrently with Museum Lives, the British Library National Life Stories unit is running an Oral History of British Science, and the Royal Society’s Dr Peter Collins is interviewing a wide range of people for his History of the Royal Society in the 20th Century. Peter is the Director of the new Centre for History of Science at the RS.

Some of the research questions and issues we wanted to address with the conference were:

Framing oral histories of science: constructing a coherent intellectual framework for interview subject selection and project design

Where science practice and oral history converge: scientific knowledge transfer, lab training and the eyewitness account

When science speaks: the tension between training in objectivity and speaking subjective experience – can oral history interviews engender self-reflexivity in scientists?

Institutions, laboratories, collections: distinguishing between individual, collective and corporate enunciations in oral history of science

Video interviews versus audio interviews pro and con: the specifics of science practice in labs and with instruments, materials and specimens

Making use of oral history in history and epistemology of science: examples of historiographic practice employing oral history records

Relations between archival formats (interviews with scientists, scientific records, and personal papers): issues for researchers and for knowledge management professionals

Oral history digitisation, storage and dissemination: metadata, name authorities, text-mining, discovery resources: how can people find what they need?

 

We brought together an exciting group of people who are either creating, contributing or using oral history recordings in the history of science to discuss the ways in which history of science is both further enriched and further complexified by this material.

Professor Soraya de Chadarevian, from University of California at Los Angeles and University of Cambridge, spoke about her very different experiences of interviewing subjects in the course of her research and using the interviews of others. The slippery problem of relying on transcripts of interviews came up here. Another highlight was Elizabeth Haines, who gave us a really useful framework to understand this wide field that is oral history of science — who has commissioned it and effected it, where, when and why, and what kinds of subjects have been addressed. There were sessions with some of the most accomplished oral historians working in this field, including Professor Tilly Tansey, who pioneered Witness Seminars in the history of medicine.

The Royal Society’s 350-year history takes so many forms and formats that this was also an occasion to explore oral history’s rapport with other records — written, published, imaged. The Head of the Library, Keith Moore, spoke about the RS’s Personal Information Files on Fellows, and Professors Tom Meade FRS and Malcolm Longair FRS spoke about the intricacies and delicacies of scientists writing about each other, in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society. The grain of the voice was particularly well addressed by Dr Paul Merchant, whose presentation focused on interviewing scientists about their childhoods.

And of course, Museum Lives, and the difficulties of institutional histories, were ably addressed by Principal Investigator Professor Brian Cathcart and interviewer Dr Sue Hawkins of Kingston University.

The Conference was recorded and can be accessed online at Backdoor Broadcasting. You can also download a copy of the programme as a pdf.

 

Museum Lives: An Oral History of the Natural History Museum  (Principal Investigator, Professor Brian Cathcart, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University: AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship with the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum)

Oral History of British Science (National Life Stories; for the British Library in association with the Science Museum)

A History of the Royal Society in the 20th Century: oral history interview research  (Principal Investigator, Dr Peter Collins, Director, Centre for the History of Science, Royal Society)

Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society  (Royal Society Publishing, Editor Professor Tom Meade FRS)

Development Manager, Royal Society

Manager, Development Office, the Royal Society, London (2001 to 2003)

 

Successful fundraising is always closely connected to exciting ideas — and is vital to enabling ideas to become form. Having been effective in convincing a variety of arts funders to support cultural projects in which I had been involved, I took the post of Manager in the Development Office of one of Europe’s oldest scientific academies, The Royal Society.  The main project was a capital campaign to redevelop the Society’s Nash-designed, Crown Estate home in Carlton House Terrace.

I came into the post after the architects had been appointed (Stefanie Fischer of Burrell Foley Fischer LLP) but before construction had begun. It was a small office, and I worked closely with Treasurer Professor Sir Eric Ash, and then briefly with his successor, Professor Sir David Wallace.

The most exciting part of the post saw me formulating proposals for a Research Centre for Interpreting History of Science at the heart of the redevelopment, a Centre which integrated the fabric of the building with the holdings and collections of the library and archives. In the Introduction and Background to the Centre business plan, I wrote:

The vision is to create a Study Centre for Interpreting History of Science which will broaden and deepen the understanding of the history of science in Europe from 1660 onwards based on skilled interpretation, actual display and digital dissemination of material unique to the Royal Society Archive and Library. This Archive-based interpretation activity would complement both university teaching establishments in the history of science and museum exhibitions, which base interpretation around an object collection. Here, the history of science would be viewed as an essential part of the project of science itself.

The Royal Society is not a Museum, nor is it a University Special Collections Library. And yet it has been making intellectual history year on year for all of its 340 years, and its Repositorie represents an unparalleled collection of archives, objects, manuscripts and institutional documentation which is central to any understanding of science as a culture and a human activity from the pre-Enlightenment to the present day. Founded before the notion of the public Museum was even fully formulated, it is worth mentioning that Elias Ashmole was a founder member of the Royal Society, and the Society’s Repositorie (now on the UK National Register) pre-dates the Ashmolean Museum’s own foundation by some twenty years.

From Wren, Hooke and Newton to Dirac, Hodgkin and Klug, the meeting of minds at the Royal Society has produced unique holdings increasingly in demand as interdisciplinary study has expanded and the discipline of the history of science has burgeoned. If interdisciplinary Humanities study rightly sees the history of science as cross-cutting most social, cultural, political and economic history, it also understands that the history of science’s institutions and academies consequently become an essential window into the intricacy of these interactions. This is why one of the seven strategic objectives of the Royal Society is to encourage research into the history of science.

… and this is what was proposed:

The Study Centre for Interpreting History of Science would be comprised of:

1. New mobile stacks, environmentally controllable storage, and purpose built work areas for the Archive and Library commensurate with its international significance and increasing active current use

2. A three year digitisation programme designed to mirror the first hundred years of the Archive holdings, contributing both to their long-term preservation and their electronic accessibility: this is as a focussed, institution-led digital profile of the history of the Royal Society’s formation and the Enlightenment

3. A permanently endowed post in Interpreting History of Science designed to integrate and highlight the work of the scholar-users of the Archive and Library, the Royal Society Archivist, and that of sister institutions in the UK and elsewhere: the post’s purpose is to create, out of the Royal Society’s archival wealth, timely multi-platform interpretive materials in the form of exhibitions, publications, study/seminar events and other resources for the history of science

and, to that end,

4. Small, versatile Archive study, education and seminar meeting rooms built to integrate with other seminar activities taking place in the larger Mercer Rooms in the new underground redevelopment as designed by architects Burrell Foley Fischer

5. New exhibition space and facilities — both localised as integral to the new underground redevelopment and mobile with tabletop exhibition cases in the Library Reading Room and Reception area as well as in upper floor meeting areas

6. A unique ‘Archive Bridge’ display structure designed by Calum Storrie to address interpretation of notoriously difficult text-based material in rolling, quick-response exhibitions

These assets and resources will enable the Archive to work in tandem with the expertise of the scholars and historians who regularly consult the Archive and Library and colleagues in other institutions in the UK and elsewhere.

 

I also liaised with colleagues at the Science Museum in order to help negotiate a home-coming of sorts for a number of key instruments and objects which the Royal Society had given in care to the institution best suited to look after them. One of the instruments I was most thrilled to see installed in a bespoke case at the Society when it reopened was Hauksbee’s Air Pump, which I had first seen many years before in the Enlightenment Galleries of the Science Museum.

For access reasons, sadly, the architects were not able to integrate the fantastic ‘Archive Bridge’ — designed by Calum Storrie — into the suite of exhibition facilities the building now boasts.  Calum and I worked closely to devise a multivalent display structure for notoriously difficult paper, book and text-based material to be shown in rolling, quick-response exhibitions. Part ‘open storage’, part plan-chest, part merry-go-round, I hope some day to see his elegantly-designed structure installed somewhere that deserves it.

The redevelopment of 6-9 Carlton House Terrace was completed in November 2003, and though not all of the wish-list above has come to pass in the last decade, much of it has. There is now a Centre for History of Science embedded in the Library and Archives at the Royal Society — and when working at the Natural History Museum, I collaborated with its Exhibitions and Events Coordinator, Dr Felicity Henderson, on Science Voices, a conference about oral history of science.

There were other pleasures, too, such as setting up a programme for serious scholarly work on the portraiture collection, which gave me an opportunity to work with Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, (author of Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraiture), for the first time. Alongside the then Librarian Karen Peters, and the Archivist Joanna Corden, we also devised a cataloguing programme that was subsequently fully funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, for materials as diverse as the Society’s Early Letters to the penicillin papers of Lord Florey.

And of course, lots of less interesting but quite important things as well — such as a strategy paper on management restructuring of the Development Office for more effective fundraising, and participation in the drafting of the Society’s corporate Business Plan. Over the two years that I was Development Manager, the Office raised more than half of the £7m redevelopment cost.

 

 

Further Links: Centre for History of Science; The Royal Society; Burrell Foley Fischer LLP; Hauksbee’s Air Pump; Calum Storrie; Professor Ludmilla Jordanova; Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraiture

[Images: Newton’s Telescope, Royal Society Collection; The Library at the RS around the time when I was working there — no, it is not me in the pic, but yes, my computer really was that big; Hauksbee’s Air Pump installed at the Royal Society, Burrell Foley Fischer LLP]