Since starting this project in October 2015, I’ve been thinking about my role as archivist for the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR). I’ve been considering what it means to open up a previously inaccessible archive collection, and the dynamics of bringing the collection out of the storage centre and into the light. I’ve also been thinking about what we mean when we talk about archives and institutional memory, and the role that an archive plays in organisational development and as a form of socio-cultural intervention.

An archive is not just a physical accumulation of stuff stored in boxes on shelves. The TIHR archive is more than the sum of its parts; the 306 boxes that make up the collection provide a visualisation or metaphor for memory and the act of remembering.

The TIHR archive holds the narrative/s of the organisation and its people dating back to the 1940s. The letters and papers in the archive trace the stories and conversations, debates and dialogues, and ideas and personalities which run throughout the Institute’s history. These provide a microcosm for understanding the history of developments in socio-psychological approaches to the workplace and society in the post-war period.
TIHR
The archive, made up of these lively interactions and debates, is currently sitting quietly in boxes, just waiting to be uncovered. For me, that is quite an exciting prospect; I don’t yet know what stories and discourses will be revealed as the archive is catalogued and opened up. I’m imagining the sorts of materials I am likely to find, and wondering just what will be discovered in the process.
My training as an archivist leads me to think about archive collections in very practical and technical terms, considering the most efficient and practical ways of cataloguing, describing and arranging collections based on their size, complexity and order. But this project is not exclusively rooted in traditional archival concepts and contexts; but is instead a uniquely dynamic piece of action research, a collaborative project that pools the expertise and perspectives of various stakeholders.

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In this sense, this project differs from any I’ve worked on before, presenting new challenges and opportunities and a critical reinterpretation and broadening out of what it means to be an archivist. In this role, I will need to think both critically and reflectively, considering what it means to be located in a co-working cross-boundary environment and to question, analyse and explore different avenues of thought and inquiry. In this sense, the process of working on the project is itself an experiential opportunity, in which I will be considering the dynamics of my role, my relation to the project team, and how the project emerges and develops.

While the project is still in its infancy, I am looking ahead to think about what it will mean to open the collection and make it accessible to researchers. This act of physically making the archive available is a means of bringing the collection into the light. As a concept, the archive offers opportunities for reconceptualising the idea of memory, memory-making, and forgetting; a way of considering how we interact with and re-interpret the past. It acts as a touchstone to the past, a way of re-examining and exploring the development of social sciences over the past seventy years.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Dear Elena Carter,

    I have just blundered onto the TIHR Archive project at Wellcome while reading Crombie’s obituary on Fred Emery.

    My interest lies in my past research on the Building Industry Communications Research Project of 1962 – 1966 (BICRP) by TIHR. (See the attached paper). I explored the archives of this inquiry at RIBA and elsewhere and published Re-interpreting the Building Industry Communications Research Project.’ Construction Management and Economics. Volume 22, no.3. pp. 303 – 310, March 2004. The article synthesises Schon’s concept of the Situation into the processes of the BICRP and as a characteristic of ‘construction as an industry’. This demonstrates how the characteristics of a fragmented social field may undermine attempts to grasp, through Action Research, the sort of policy initiatives required for the development of a particularly problematical social field within the processes of the inquiry itself.

    As a project BICRP is infrequently referenced in TIHR work. However it is an early characterisation of our current projects society. Emery’s concern with fragmentation as a maladaptive process is exemplary for the sort of analysis offered by the TIHR researchers of the BICRP.

    It seems to me that TIHR papers following the termination of the BICRP significantly understate the significance of the necessarily transitional outcomes of this particular inquiry as well as the difficulties of the AR processes involved in the inquiry itself.

    It may be that TIHR action based inquiry reached their limits in the inner and outer contexts of this particular project at this specific juncture. But my current students of construction find this inquiry and its implications to have relevance to their practitioner-research 50 years on from its collapse. This collapse reflects the reality of TIHR inquiry processes becoming casualties of the sort of turbulent social field identified by Emery and Trist in their crucial and still highly relevant 1965 paper.

    For your information I have attached the final draft of the paper, which is the actual published version. However what may also interest you as an archivist are the notes I derived from the conference held in Cambridge prior to commencement of the inquiry and recorded in the BICRP archive itself.
    Finally it may well be the case that there are within the archives papers which would further clarify the BICRP as a consulting process. I would be interested in viewing these. Dr Gurth Higgin, the TIHR lead researcher must have been involved in some way in the discussions which lead to the 1965 Causal Texture paper.

    I hope you find this to be a useful contribution to the sort of work you are undertaking and I am available to assist with this particular aspect of it.

    Yours faithfully

    Alan Wild

    Reply
    • Dear Alan,

      Thank you very much for your comment and interest in the Tavistock Institute archive project, and particularly for sharing your research interest in the Tavistock’s Building Communications Research Project – interesting to read about these nuances of Tavistock methodologies.

      I’ve had a quick scan through the TIHR archive box list, and discovered that the report is contained within the TIHR archive (although has not yet been catalogued). It doesn’t look as though there are any other papers surrounding the project or the production of the report – although the box list is a rough working document, so more papers could potentially come to light over the course of the cataloguing.

      I’ve also had a search on the Warwick Modern Records Centre archive catalogue (this is where the IOR archive is held), and see that they also hold a copy of the report too: http://mrc-catalogue.warwick.ac.uk/records/IOR/T/2/1 It might be worth having a look through their catalogue to see if any surrounding documentation which may be of interest.

      You mention that you have attached a copy of the report, however I cannot see this on the comment here. You can forward this on to me at e.carter@tavinstitute.org – You might be interested to know that I have already had someone make contact in response to your comment, expressing interest in viewing a copy of this paper. I would be happy to forward this on, as appropriate, in the interim period before the physical copy is accessible in the archive.

      Once again, thank you for your interest and help.

      Best wishes,
      Elena

      Reply

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Elena Carter

About Elena Carter

I am an archivist at Wellcome Library. This means I help look after and facilitate access to the Library’s diverse and unique collections, to allow researchers to explore and engage with history through the lens of the medical humanities. As part of this role, I spend one day a week working on the Tavistock Institute archive project. My particular focus is providing support to the 2017 Festival and audience and research engagement. I worked as the Tavistock Institute’s Archivist between October 2015 and March 2017, cataloguing and making accessible parts of the Institute’s extensive and rich archive. My favourite things: strong tea, long walks, brutalist buildings, veggie sausages.

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Reflections and Practice, Responding and Researching

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