In school, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. At university,
I found my way into history and began writing about nuclear physicists.
Then I joined ASAP, and started working on the archival collections
of scientists, including - you guessed it - nuclear physicists.
The journey seemed a fairly natural one at the time, and there
are many people who could tell of more convoluted intellectual
and professional meanderings. However, despite the prevalence
of border-hopping amongst practitioners, the boundaries between
science, history and archives remain disturbingly inviolable.
Many scientists still view the historian's enterprise with suspicion,
pointing to a list of scientific publications as adequate documentation
of their careers, their lives, and their disciplines. Science,
in the historian's dictionary, too often translates as something
foreign or disagreeable, best confined to a rival faculty; while
archives are treasure houses awaiting plunder, guarded by mean-spirited
functionaries (archivists). In the world of archives, both scientists
and historians are sometimes seen as nothing more than distractions,
complicating the professional management task by daring to either
create or use records. The problem is not that there are 'two
cultures', but that there are many disciplinary fragments, each
seeking to establish some sense of identity and authority at the
expense of communication. The boundaries established may help
define career paths, but what do they do to our understanding
of ourselves and our culture?
The Recovering Science conference was an attempt to encourage
interchange across these boundaries, to foster communication between
disciplinary groups and develop our understanding of how science
might be documented in the Australian context. As Gavan McCarthy
described in his paper, it followed upon science archives conferences
held in 1981 and 1985. Over 120 scientists, historians and archivists,
as well as museum workers, librarians, and teachers attended the
Recovering Science conference over three days in October
The title, 'Recovering science', was intended to provide an overall
thematic framework within which a range of practical, methodological
and theoretical questions could be raised (and answered?). In
fashionably post-modern style its meaning was threefold. First,
'recovery' referred to the actual work of finding, processing
and preserving the records of science. Of course, this is not
just a matter of rescuing lost or endangered collections, it also
involves establishing strategies for the documentation of current
and future scientific activity. How can this be done? As Joan
Warnow-Blewett explained in her keynote address, one way of developing
such strategies is to look at what goes on in scientific institutions.
Yes, this involves archivists actually talking to scientists,
observing their communication patterns, and analysing
the administrative structures within which they work. Instead
of seeking to appraise a body of records in isolation, Joan described
a process of 'macroappraisal' or 'documentation research' that
enables policies and procedures to be established that take account
of the complex nature of modern science.
This approach contrasts with that of Australian Archives, as
outlined by Wendy Southern. Faced with the daunting task of dealing
with a large number of government agencies involved in science
and technology, Australian Archives has developed a set of guidelines
to assist the appraisal process. These do not reflect science
as it is practised within particular institutions, but rather
focus on a set of activities that are taken to be central to the
process of science generally. Clearly there are some dangers in
applying an abstract formula to the documentation of science and
technology in the field. As Wendy herself concludes: 'Only a dynamic
and flexible approach that includes the cooperation of researchers
themselves will ensure that the records of science are "recovered"'.
Unfortunately, the records of science and technology related
industries have not been the subject of any such systematic attempt
at preservation. Diane Sydenham described some of the horrors
that awaited her as a researcher delving into company archives.
However, she argued that it is up to historians, archivists and
curators to be 'innovative and imaginative' in order to demonstrate
to business that their skills are of value in the commercial environment.
Interestingly, in the time since the conference ASAP has undertaken
a number of archival processing contracts with industrial organisations.
It is clear from our own experience that specialist knowledge
in the handling of science and technology related records is a
Scientific institutions are also keen to benefit from the archivist's
experience. Margaret Brumby explained that institutions such as
the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research are swamped
by masses of paper resulting from the increasingly complex regulatory
environment. What are they to keep? And what about photographs?
Margaret believed that these were important as a record of the
human face of science, but how does that relate to their archival
value? In a similar way, Martin Hallett raised the question of
the evocative function of objects. In formulating a collection
policy for Scienceworks, attention is given not just to the evidential
value of material, but its ability to 'evocatively tell stories'.
As Martin suggested: 'Objects are a powerful medium for interpreting
and communicating the issues relating to scientific and technological
developments in Australia.'
Objects, though, do not exist in isolation. They are products
of complex processes that require thorough documentation - artefacts
and archives each tell parts of the same story. Jan Brazier developed
this theme further, describing the ways in which the Australian
Museum's collections of objects and archives were closely interconnected.
There is obviously much to gain from maintaining the links between
museum collections and archival sources, but this requires greater
understanding between archivists, curators and scientists: 'Each
has to see the other's benefit'.
The second meaning of 'recovering science' is that of reclaiming
science as an important part of our heritage, of staking out a
legitimate place for science and technology within historical
accounts of Australian society. Discussions of the development
and form of Australian culture rarely consider the role of scientific
activity, and yet a recognition of this, our scientific 'identity',
is crucial to our understanding of ourselves and our society.
This is being overcome as more and more attempts are made to explore
the context of science in Australia, but these are dependent upon
further efforts on the part of archivists, museum curators, historians
and scientists, to develop lines of communication and to improve
access to documentary resources.
Scientists are people! One way of opening the history of science
up to a wider audience is to tell the stories of the scientists
themselves, through biography. A pre-conference forum on science
biography revealed a variety of approaches and problems. Once
again the human face of science was discussed - how do you find
your way through the various public guises to an understanding
of the person? Of course, this is an issue confronting all biographers,
but perhaps scientists are more disguised than most, as many human
characteristics have been explicitly removed from the public image
of 'the scientist'. Lyndsay Gardiner faced this difficult problem
when preparing her biography of E.V. Keogh. No personal papers
survived, so Lyndsay was forced to read between the lines of official
correspondence to gain some feeling for the man. On the other
hand, Janie Marshall knew her subject, Jock Marshall, very well.
Her problem was maintaining sufficient distance from the material
to enable her to link her knowledge of the man she loved with
the story of Jock the scientist.
In both cases access to the remaining archival sources was crucial.
But what do you do if the relevant material is scattered across
the globe? Sara Maroske described how the Correspondence of Ferdinand
von Mueller project is attempting to gather together sources documenting
the life and work of Australia's most eminent nineteenth century
scientist. This project provides an example of the first two meanings
of 'recovering science', combining the recovery and publication
of Mueller's correspondence, with the preparation of a detailed
biography that will reclaim Mueller's international standing.
A more pro-active strategy, however, will ensure that Fellows
of the Australian Academy of Science are not forgotten by posterity.
Rosanne Clayton outlined the process by which detailed biographical
memoirs are prepared and published in Historical Records of
The history of Australian science is a history of people, it
is also a history of institutions and industries. Science is not
confined to the laboratory bench. The records of a large company
like CSR can reveal much about the state of Australia's scientific
and technological development. Maureen Purtell drew on the CSR
collection to demonstrate that industrial records can yield valuable
and unexpected information. Similarly, the records of scientific
instrument manufacturers in London are not where you would expect
to find information about Australian science. Yet, Julian Holland
showed that these were valuable sources in tracing the purchasing
habits of Australian universities in the nineteenth century. The
type of equipment being bought gives us a good indication of the
science that was being taught and researched.
There are many stories to be told in the area of defence science
as well, but perhaps rather than a lack of sources, the problem
here is access. Peter Morton gave a taste of archival riches awaiting
historians in this field, if they can survive the many frustrations.
The sheer volume of the records, their dispersal and the problem
of security classification combine to make historical research
a gruelling experience. I had a taste of this myself when investigating
the role of Australian scientists in the British atomic tests.
I was informed that a number of the files I had requested from
the Defence Department had to be cleared by the British High Commission.
As an optimistic young historian I wrote to the High Commissioner
asking if there was any way the process could be expedited. He
replied, kindly explaining that under the terms of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty his government had a responsibility to
ensure that information concerning the manufacture of nuclear
weapons was not inadvertently made public. This was quite amusing
given that the whole thrust of my thesis was that the British
authorities did not trust Australia with any details of the bomb!
Any historical work of this kind must, in turn, raise questions
about what it is that we call 'science'. The third meaning in
the conference title is a call to 're-cover' or re-examine the
image of science that is being portrayed in all the areas outlined
above. Where are the boundaries drawn that define science as a
distinctive process, and why? This obviously affects the sorts
of activities that are taken to be science, the distinctions that
are made between scientists and non-scientists, and the range
of sources that are deemed to be appropriate for its study. In
developing an understanding of science in Australia, a number
of assumptions about the nature of science and society must be
called into play. In developing resources to be used in this process
we are led to consider the role of archivists, museum curators,
scientists and historians in themselves constructing particular
images of scientific activity and identity.
Amaya Alvarez challenged our assumptions about those whom we
categorise as scientists. She showed how women in Australia were
systematically excluded from reaching the upper levels of the
scientific hierarchy. As a result, their achievements and abilities
have been largely ignored by historians. Shauna Hicks similarly
drew our attention to the contributions made by 'amateurs'. Clearly
we should be conscious of the processes by which recognition as
a 'scientist' is conferred. Otherwise, many scientific workers
will fall through the net of history, leaving us with an account
that merely reflects the workings of the scientific community.
In writing a biography of Michael White, Doug McCann was led
to consider the way in which history itself can be used as a weapon
in the resolution of scientific disputes. White was effectively
written out of the history of genetics in a battle for authority
between rival disciplines. Science is not simply 'out there' waiting
to be documented, it is embedded within a range of practices and
structures. Maryanne McCubbin argued for a broader understanding
of science, demonstrating that the social history collections
of the Museum of Victoria had much to offer our understanding
of science in society.
The Recovering Science conference succeeded in encouraging
communication about the documentation of science in Australia
across the usual disciplinary boundaries. As historians, archivists
and curators, we were reminded that in documenting science we
are also creating it. The process of 'recovering science' can
never be finished and must always be questioned. We have to keep