Bateson, Darlington and the John Innes Archives

Continuing my homeless odyssey, I have moved to Norwich. This wasn’t done on a whim, but in order to take up a 1 month project at the John Innes Centre (JIC) archives, funded by the Wellcome Trust. A big thank you to my friends Matt and Adele who put me in a room and even sorted me out with a study to work in (the fools think I’m leaving in a week!) If you’d like to thank them on my behalf, then give some money to the charity Matt supports (yeah he’s one of those types, but not usually, so don’t hold it against him). Simon Coleman was the fully-fledged Wellcome Trust funded project archivist, who spent 15 months describing the archives of Bateson and Darlington kept here at the JIC.

My project is to photograph and describe 600 glass lantern slides that were once used for teaching purposes by Cyril Darlington and William Bateson. Thanks to Simon Coleman each slide was already boxed and named, making the whole thing pretty painless. The aim is to eventually make this huge image library available online. As far as jobs for roving penniless PhD students who study the history of genetics go, this one really couldn’t have been any better!  Dr. Sarah Wilmot is my main contact here, and in-between bouts of work, we’ve been able to talk about the history of biology, botany, genetics, and the exceptionally rare (AND UNDERUSED) material kept here in Norwich.  More on that in the future. Here’s what I’ve done this month:

The Photography Studio at the John Innes. That's a might expensive camera right there.

The Photography Studio at the John Innes. That’s a mighty expensive camera right there.

I start by cleaning each slide, then popping it on a light box and taking its picture with something that’s worth more than me. The John Innes’ professional photographer Andy Davies spent a good couple of hours with me in the first week, showing me how to use the camera and Photoshop. I can’t say I mastered it, but if any of the pictures are considered passable, then the man’s a miracle worker. Once each picture is taken, I try and clean it up on the computer (dropping the colour out of black and white images, increasing the contrast, that sort of thing). I then enter the details of each slide into a spread sheet, linking them to the images via a hyperlink formula (I used a formula as there was no way in hell I was going to ‘Right Click-Make Hyperlink-Locate File’ 600 times. No f-ing way! And now it’s too late to make me). And that’s it.

I’ve already finished that job (potential future employers please take note) so I’ve moved on to capturing the marginalia contained in the personal libraries of Darlington and Bateson. Hard life innit. The good people of the John Innes have allowed me to stick a couple of my favourite lantern slides on the bottom of this post, but I’ll be trying to write something more specific about the slides themselves on the brand spanking new John Innes Historical Collections blog. Stick that in your RSS reader and read it.

Lastly, over the past four years I have felt very lucky, and more than a little spoilt, to be working with a scientific organisation whose management, right from the very top, valued the benefits that professional historical work could bring to the Institute. The people I worked with at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany were open to the different perspective historical work could bring, even when it appeared critical, because more often than not, the arguments I was drawing out from the historical record were arguments that they recognised were still going on today, though perhaps in some other form. I was therefore very surprised (and quite a bit relieved) to find the very same attitude can be found here at the John Innes. History isn’t just used as a thin gloss to make the place look a little more shiny. Rather an effort is made to build history into the fabric of the place. Dr. Wilmot has a vast and rich archive with which to work, and is given room to scrutinise it creatively. While from time to time, a project might be organised around the pre-history to something current scientists have been developing, there is no short-sighted pressure to ONLY work on things of direct relevance to current scientific work. It’s always remarkable to me when I see a scientific institution doing the opposite. What could be more pointless or shallow than directing an expert in their field towards one small and particular area of research, for no other reason than the tiny glint of value it might bring to some recent scientific development, when – with a free hand – that same researcher could achieve something a hundred times more exciting. If you’ve got Ronaldo on your team, you don’t stick him in goal. (This analogy was brought to you by FIFA14, from which I learn everything about football, and of which I have been playing far too much lately. Blame Matt, who does nothing but lose to me all day long).

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