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Saturday 27 July 2013

A brief taste of the ICHSTM in Manchester

The International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine took place in Manchester this week and is still going on. While I didn't have the time - or the stamina! - to attend the whole week-long event, I did get in a very enjoyable day and a half of participation.

I travelled up on Tuesday afternoon, had a preliminary meeting with the other members of the two-panel symposium The science of man? Bounds of knowledge in the twentieth century within which I was presenting my thoughts on Naomi Mitchison engaging with the issues around reproduction and breeding which had been so salient in her own life, and in the circles in which she moved, in her late-life move into science fiction. I then attended the Civic Reception in Manchester Town Hall, a neo-Gothic monument to Victorian municipal pride: very crowded, rather hot, and the acoustics/PA system not perhaps all they could have been for the speeches, but I managed to spot, and chat with, some people I knew.

The next morning I popped into 'Governing minds and bodies with the human sciences' in order to catch Alice White's fascinating paper on Constructing consensus: human relations and the War Office Selection Boards in World War II but then panel-hopped into Expanding women’s sphere: knowledge and the re-definition of women’s work in the twentieth century and stayed with this for the following session, in which I found Rosemary Wall's paper on British nurses in the field of tropical medicine of particular interest.

The 'Science of Man?' symposium on Wednesday afternoon went very well, I thought (kudos to Graham Baker for organising this) and I thought raised issues about complexity, muddle, and definitions that recurred in the following morning's papers. Sometimes looking back we draw lines and create categories that were not there, or at least not taken into account, by the people there in the past moment. And thinking about Graham's paper on Julian Huxley, the useful interrogation of the mainline/reform eugenics dichotomy suggested to me that this (like Old/New Feminism in the 1920s) has perhaps outworn its usefulness.

There was an excellent reception in the Fossil Gallery at the Manchester Museum to launch WISRNet - I think sipping fizzy wine (and eating delicious canapes) under a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Stan adds tone to an event, even before the splendid inaugural speech by Ludmilla Jordanova.

On Thursday morning I made a special effort to get up in time to get checked out my hotel and to the conference venue to catch the first session of the symposium From patronage to biotech: new perspectives on medicine and commerce. Given my own research interests, I was particularly excited by Claire L Jones' work on the supply and marketing of contraceptives in Britain in the late C19th-earlyC20th, as I have long felt that understanding of the industry and its activities has been a major lacuna in the history of birth control. Even if artificial contraception played less of a part than previously thought in bringing about population decline, enough people must have been using it to make manufacture and distribution a profitable, if marginalised and stigmatised, commercial proposition. All three papers were looking at forms of health activity within the home: I am interested to see where James Stark's work on the Overbeck Rejuvenator goes!

I then ventured into the Science as Public Culture revisited symposium session on media, which again, was indicating that narratives of science have tended to impose a clear but sometimes simplistic picture of what was actually happening. I did perhaps want to suggest, in response to Katherine Pandora's lovely paper, that there are some instances of the laboratory becoming an intimate and perhaps quasi-familial space rather than an austere location for the solitary scientist (e.g. Honor Fell at the Strangeways, and her 'tea ceremony' for researchers there). Also, on thinking further about Rebecca Onion's intriguing work on environmentalism in children's picture books, early 1970s, I wonder if this relates to wider issues of children's literature expressing concerns over contemporary problems, but also to the longer tradition of didacticism and purpose in books for children.

All in all, a very stimulating experience which has provided me with a lot to keep thinking about.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Not, alas, the kind of story completely foreign to archivists

Italian police said on Friday they had recovered 36 manuscripts by novelist Giovanni Verga worth some four millions euros ($5.25 million):

Italian police said on Friday they had recovered 36 manuscripts by novelist Giovanni Verga worth some four millions euros ($5.25 million). The manuscripts were stolen in the 1930s. Police also recovered drawings and letters between Verga and the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, philosopher Benedetto Croce and dramatist Luigi Pirandello. The documents were lost when Verga's son, Giovanni Verga Patriarca, lent them to a historian in the small town of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto in Sicily who then refused to return them and hid them. "The precious documents were never returned and attempts to retrieve them have always failed as they were very well squirrelled away," Antonio Coppola, who led the police operation, told AFP. 
The lead to this material was their listing in an auction catalogue.

As an archivist one certainly encounters cases where papers have been 'loaned', not always with the drawing up of a formal contractual agreement, to biographers or other historians, or 'temporarily' to a university department or library. Also instances of depositors who want to embargo a collection until the official biographer/historian has finished with them. This is just marginally acceptable if the biographer or historian is going to complete their task within a reasonable length of time, but there have been cases where slow-moving scholars have sat on papers for years if not decades. (There are also issues around the physical conditions under which papers are kept, whether the biographer is rearranging them for their own research purposes, etc, etc.)

Scholars have been known to be unduly possessive of archives in their possession or even just on which they have worked, and to be anxious lest someone should 'steal' their research. However, I would argue that it's less a matter of the particular material and more about what the scholar is doing with it, and it's very unlikely that two scholars would want to be using the same papers for exactly the same purpose. (There is perhaps a somewhat reasonable concern in the case of biographies, but even then, the biographers will be bringing their own interpretation to the material.)

I also find a number of questions evoked by this report: Unique transgender archive sent to Canadian university after offer to LSE is rebuffed but I don't have enough information to say anything particularly useful. It's distressing that they're not remaining in the UK, certainly.

And while it was satisfactory that the threat to Croydon's archive services did not come to pass, the Council's attitude to heritage collections is still problematic: Historic collection worth millions threatened with dispersal as Croydon council looks to raise funds for arts complex

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History: save the date!

New Directions – Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History
Tuesday 8 April 2014, University College London
With a keynote address by Professor Laura Doan, University of Manchester
Call for Papers
This one day workshop looks to bring together scholars, at any stage of their career and working on any aspect of gender, sex and sexuality in 20th century Britain, and to provide a forum for both the presentation of new work and the beginning of a dialogue about the past, present and future of the field.

The workshop addresses the field at a critical juncture in its development. The decades since the publication of Jeffrey Weeks’ Sex, politics and society (1981) have seen histories of gender, sex and sexuality become increasingly central to historians’ understanding of 20th century Britain. There has been a corresponding march through the institutions: no longer regarded as involved in a fringe pursuit, scholars of gender, sex and sexuality have found homes in departments; non-specialist periodicals have watched and sponsored new research with interest; and the UK’s major presses have published groundbreaking work, exemplified by the inauguration of Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Gender and Sexualities in History’ series in 2009.

Alongside this professional maturation, events in wider society have demonstrated the continued power of ideas about gender, sex and sexuality to shape popular understandings of British history. Indeed, the recent past, whether as a dark age of intolerance or, conversely, a golden age of “family values,” has loomed  heavily in debates about equal marriage, the Savile affair and the “sexualisation” of childhood. The voices of
historians have been present in some of these debates. Yet in others they have been largely absent, even when scholars from other disciplines – sociology, education, gender studies, science and medicine – have been prominent.

The workshop therefore asks participants to consider “where have we got to, and where do we go from here?” What contributions have we made, through British examples, to understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in history? What contributions have we made, through a focus on of gender, sex and sexuality, to understandings of 20th century British history? Finally, what contributions have we made to understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in Britain outside our profession, both in other disciplines and, importantly, the wider public conversation? And in all three cases, what contributions, in new and ongoing work, might we make in the future?

To help address these questions, the workshop organisers welcome proposals for papers presenting new work on any aspect of gender, sex or sexuality in twentieth century British history as well as those that reflexively engage with the past, present or future of the field. The organisers particularly welcome papers looking at non-marginal experiences, as well as those looking to challenge marginal/non-marginal distinctions altogether. We are also especially interested in contributions from postgraduate and early career scholars.

If you are interested in presenting a paper at the workshop, please email a short proposal (max. 300 words) and CV or short bio to by 1st September 2013. If you would like to discuss possible topics before submitting a proposal, please get in touch at the same address. Registration details for non-speakers will be publicised later in 2013 at
Kevin Guyan and Ben Mechen, UCL History (organisers)