To the Crick! Part one: Moving home after 100 years
The National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill became part of the Francis Crick Institute in 2015 and this year it will move to its new home in King’s Cross. In the first of a series of blogs about the history of NIMR, project archivist Emma Anthony talks to Sylvie Kruiniger about the preservation of NIMR records.
Hundreds of researchers, engineers, technicians, support staff and librarians are moving across London. In preparation, Emma Anthony is going through the extensive records of NIMR to determine which have historical value.
This isn’t the first time that the century-old, publicly-funded medical research institute has moved home. The institute moved to Mill Hill in 1950, having grown significantly in size and renown. These images from the archive show its first home, in Hampstead, and an vintage snap of its current location, Mill Hill.
On the right is the new Crick building: a staggering structure in the heart of London that has been described as a smart-design super-lab and even an altar to biomedical science. The building provides an environment for cutting-edge science, specially designed to reduce external interference with highly-sensitive equipment and an open plan layout to get researchers collaborating across floors and disciplines.
The MRC does not have the facilities for an accessible archive so, after the move, NIMR’s records will be gifted to archival repositories. Once Emma’s work is complete, researchers and members of the public will be able to access them and understand more about the history of the NIMR.
Inside the records store at Mill Hill, piles of papers and intriguing objects line the shelves. Here we find lab books, personal files and a miscellany of other objects and records such as a framed watercolour by Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, better known for his research than his art. A cupboard rattles insistently: Emma explains she likes to imagine it is the ghost of Peter Medawar, a previous NIMR director, come to keep her company and watch over the move.
Personal files contain letters that detail the thought processes behind major decisions in the careers of famous scientists. Lab books allow us to follow the process of discovery and gain an understanding of how different labs operated.
Surely everything here is of value and we should be preserving all these amazing records? Many months into the project and Emma is rather more pragmatic: “We can’t keep everything because keeping everything results in being able to find and understand nothing amongst a plethora of outdated invoices, cheque book stubs, and images of unidentified microbes.”
“To decide what has historical value, I look at the evolving aims and objectives of the institute to establish which records best represent them. But I also consider the human aspect of the organisation. This can mean preserving more ephemeral records such as magazines produced by the NIMR staff club, NIMROD. Items like these can be invaluable in understanding the institute and what it was like to work there.
“Being an archivist allows me unique access to the traces that people leave behind. Working with their letters, notes and personal files has taught me that while our knowledge grows and changes all the time, human nature does not.
“The NIMR archive shows the joys and trials familiar to researchers the world over of finding a balance between freedom and accountability in science, as well as the disappointment when research doesn’t yield the rewards hoped.
“It shows some of the best and worst aspects of human nature – the spirit of cooperation and a willingness to help, pitted against petty rivalries and personality clashes. Perhaps most importantly, it chronicles the people who made the NIMR – not just the scientists, but the technicians, engineers, and support staff.
“Preserving and cataloguing these records means that when the lights go out at Mill Hill Laboratory for the last time and its staff make their way to King’s Cross, the lives, work and foibles of many of the individuals who roamed its corridors will live on. This allows us to understand and learn from the people who made NIMR and build on their successes as we move forward to a new home.”
We’ll be dipping into the archives with Emma over the coming months to take a closer look at some pieces of NIMR history as researchers begin to move into the Crick.