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Tim Sherratt
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 1992.

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 saleable commodity.

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 Australian Science.

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 talking.

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Date modified: 25 February 1998