On writing an institutional history (with special #histsci emphasis)

Though my thesis is many, many, extraordinary things, it is – when all is said and done – an institutional history. (By the way, I’ll be making it available online when all the paperwork is signed off and I’ve PAID to have it bound). Five chapters, each focusing on a 10-15 year chunk of time, chart the first fifty years of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), a scientific and regulatory organisation based in Cambridge.

When first starting out, I was directed towards Mary Douglas’ ‘How Institutions Think‘. I remember enjoying it, but it became clear very early on that NIAB was not going to be an appropriate place to explore these ideas; Douglas’ institutions tended not to have ‘Institute’ in their name. Rather than continue casting around, I decided to dive straight into the mountains of untouched archive material held by the Institute, which for the years 1900-1970 have now been catalogued. The files, notebooks, folders, and boxes that make up the NIAB archive had been salvaged and organized by Tricia Cullimore and Paul Thompson, two employees at NIAB with a deep appreciation for the Institute’s history. These materials were then subsequently discovered on behalf of HPS by Berris Charnley. From there, and thanks to a grant from the AHRC, my PhD emerged. It was obvious from the beginning that this archive was going to make or break the thesis, and thinking about it now, it’ll probably make or break my career!

There were one or two good models at my disposal when it came to thinking about how to write the history of an institution such as NIAB. The official history of NIAB was a particularly obvious one, but just as obvious was that its authors (two past employees of the Institute) weren’t writing for an HPS audience.  Beyond this there was Eileen Magnello’s history of the National Physical Laboratory – significant for my purposes not only as a scientific institute, but one similarly patronised by the state and with a strong industrial standardising remit, paralleling much of NIAB’s work in enlightening ways.  In addition, there were the series of excellent and thoroughly researched John Innes Centre timeline’s, written by Sarah Wilmot, Outreach Curator and Science Historian at the Centre. That both of these latter resources had been compiled with an eye to their respective institution’s centenaries was also significant, as NIAB itself will be enjoying these celebrations in 2019 (and that of the Official Seed Testing Station, housed in the same Cambridge building, in 2017). From both of these works I learnt that it was possible to make exposition entertaining (sooooo much exposition in an institutional history) and that it is imperative never to take your eye off the ball; the institute is the key, or main thread, around which the rest must be woven. But what IS the Institute?

NIAB Headquarters, completed in 1921. Image property of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany.

NIAB Headquarters, completed in 1921. Image property of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany.

It’s this place, dummy!

I am only partly joking. Pointing to the buildings, grounds, and staff isn’t a ‘wrong’ answer in an institutional history. Pointing to these things and saying that this is all an institution is, that would be wrong, and is a common problem within more traditional institutional histories. Other problems include myopia (failing to see the institute as but one part of a much larger picture), taking the organisation too seriously (failing to see its fuzzy edges, incoherence, the constraints on its decisions), and being too hesitant to address darker episodes in the institute’s life, either due to developing too much affection for the place or (more worryingly) due to pressure from the institute’s contemporary staff. This last problem is of particular concern for that growing number of us funded by an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA). Students working on a CDA are closely bound to the collaborating partner from day one. You can imagine the kinds of problems this might throw up when researching and writing an institute’s history. I was exceptionally lucky that my NIAB supervisor, the Institute’s Director, Tina Barsby, allowed me my own head, and while her questions and suggestions contributed greatly to the ultimate form of the thesis, there was never even a wiff of ‘brand management’ or ‘interference’ in my research and writing. Tina always made the effort to find in my work points of comparison, often very direct, to her own experience, and I hope the thesis will go on to be something of a reference point for those responsible for NIAB’s future.

Having said this, I did develop an affection for the place. I think there are two main ways in which this shaped my thesis.

Firstly, I left out the more ‘journalistic‘ elements of historical writing. I placed my level of interpretation at a steady 10,000 feet and maintained it throughout. It would have been very easy to dip down time and time again, to interpret exchanges and arguments as ‘heated’ or ‘incoherent’, pointed out when somebody said something stupid, or whatever, but I simply left this kind of thing out. After all, NIAB matters, and has mattered, to many more people than just me. Writing a history of the place does not give me ownership over NIAB’s identity, there are many other people out there with memories of the Institute, and perhaps histories of their own. Trying to put my greasy little fingers over every moment, every face, every surface of the Institute, would not only have made my history off-putting to this wider audience of people interested in NIAB, but would also have been petty.

Secondly, when writing, I tried to imagine my thesis being read by the people who currently work there. I met quite a number of them, and got to spend extended periods of time with a few of the exceptionally friendly ones, drinking tea, eating cake, listening to them discussing their working week, institutional politics, family life, hobbies etc. Developing this sense of ‘NIAB today’ was, I think, important, because the history of the Institute can and should be a resource for these guys just as much as it should be for any historian. Having their imaginary eyes just over my shoulder has (I hope) helped me write fewer things that will come to make me cringe over the years ahead. An appreciation for ‘NIAB today’ also helped me select my problems (in a way that is not unproblematic). NIAB’s staff today have to worry about the purpose of the Institute, the arrangement and value of trialling, developments in genetics, regulation of plant matter, and the global agricultural industry. (That is Chapter’s 1 -5 in a nutshell). I am 99% certain that if a NIAB employee were to sit down and read that brief list, they would nod in recognition of the deep problems at the heart of each, and the unique way in which they are put together at the Institute.*

To end this post, I’d like to consider the value of writing an institutional history. In the last few weeks before submission, while working on the period of the late 1960s and approaching NIAB’s 50th anniversary (and thus the end of my thesis) I began to find material relating to their then anniversary plans. It was suggested that an institutional history should be commissioned. You can imagine my little heart skipping a beat at the thought of finding some unpublished manuscript at the 11th hour, rivalling my very own history of the same period. Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that the project had never been completed. What was interesting though, were the terms in which NIAB representatives saw the value of this enterprise, as it gave me something of a mirror to my own experiences.

This is a good idea to mark the 50th anniversary and as a propaganda effort. But it all hinges on cost – both £.s.d. for publication, and in time compiling such a record… I should have thought that if anything more than a base recital of facts is envisaged then you [Frank Horne, Director of NIAB] are about the only one who could make a good readable history of the Institute.

I have certainly achieved more than a base recital of facts, and if ‘all publicity is good publicity’ then you can consider my thesis a succesfully completed propaganda effort. As far as costs go, I think you’ll struggle to find a more productive unit than a PhD student. We work hard. Really hard. And keep ourselves poor just for the privilege to do so. Is it ‘a good readable history of the Institute’? Well folks, that’ll be for you to decide. Till then, God bless.

Dominic Berry will be making his thesis available online as soon as possible. In the meantime he is rediscovering the human world and drinking too much. He has decided to end this post as though you had been reading a proper journalistic piece because it makes him feel grand and powerful.

*I now await a flood of NIAB employees telling me I’m talking shit. What’s that you say? They don’t read this? Oh. Oh yes, quite right.




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