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For staff


Old champagne bottles and beer cans sound like the contents of a Cambridge college rubbish bin, but they could be part of our scientific heritage.

“There are all sorts of horror stories of things being lost, like Watson and Crick’s model”

Professor Nick Jardine

Hoarding seems a basic human trait. Most of us set aside a kitchen drawer for string and curtain hooks and other objects that might one day come in handy. A few lucky souls unearth dusty relics in the attic that turn out to be unexpectedly valuable. And the same appears to be true of university departments.

According to a recent survey by Dr Lydia Wilson and Professor Nick Jardine as part of the Scientific Heritage Project, a surprising amount of Cambridge’s recent scientific heritage lies not in museum cases but squirrelled away in departmental drawers and cupboards.

“There are a small number of accredited museums, a number of collections – some of them teaching collections – and then you have countless cupboards full of things some technician or retiring member of staff was sentimentally attached to, as well as stuff that’s just been abandoned but not yet thrown away,” says Professor Jardine of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. “It’s really quite startling what’s around.”

Surveying some two dozen science and medicine departments at Cambridge, Wilson and Jardine discovered thousands of objects, although the exact number is impossible to pin down. “It’s quite hard to decide how you count objects,” Professor Jardine says. “It depends on what you count. If you include all the slides in specimen collections then it’s tens or hundreds of thousands of objects.”

While he refuses to be drawn on the survey’s most valuable finds, Professor Jardine is willing to reveal some of the odder objects uncovered. In the Department of Biochemistry, they discovered an old champagne bottle signed – and its contents perhaps consumed – by Fred Sanger after winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1958. At the Institute of Astronomy, they stumbled on crates of instruments once used by astronomers as they travelled the world in pursuit of eclipses. And in the Department of Genetics, they found an ingenious teaching model of DNA meiosis fashioned by Professor Rollin Emmerson in the 1970s from wire and old beer cans.”

And although they failed to find the iconic double helix model used by James Watson and Francis Crick (see box), Wilson and Jardine discovered something less tangible but perhaps more important. “There are all sorts of horror stories of things being lost, like Watson and Crick’s model. They gave away bits of the original to people as mementoes,” he explains. “So I’m tremendously encouraged by how many departments here have people lovingly caring for these things. But of course there’s no formal recognition of the people who look after these objects, so part of the project is to raise awareness of what they do.”

Unofficial curators

As well as acknowledging the University’s small army of unofficial curators, the heritage project is developing guidelines for staff on what to keep and how to preserve it – guidance that currently exists for knowledge in the form of paper but not for the equipment used to create it.

“If you’re disposing of manuscripts, prints or digital material there are quite strict rules about who you should consult and the procedure to go through,” Professor Jardine points out. “But when it comes to disposing of scientific materials, there are plenty of procedures, but they’re about the financial asset register or health and safety rather than the heritage value.

“One of our jobs is to prepare toolkits – minimal guidelines on conservation, documentation and display of objects,” he says. “We’re interested in a dispersed collections policy that doesn’t collect everything together, which is totally unfeasible, but rather tries to create a forum that coordinates the people caring for things in departments and gives them some official recognition.”

As part of the project, Professor Jardine is working with a Universeum working group to learn how other universities are tackling similar issues. “This is an area where the best is the enemy of the good. If you tried to impose on science departments the strict rules of accredited museums they wouldn’t have the staff to do it and, if anything, you’d be encouraging them to quietly throw things away. What we need are more basic guidelines on things like labelling and storage conditions.”

Varied aims of preservation

Compared with older objects in museums or collections, preserving recent scientific heritage (usually defined as post-Second World War) is a challenge for universities, not least because there is so much stuff and so little space. Which instruments, materials and specimens merit preserving? Choosing what to keep depends on the varied aims of preservation: equipment and specimens may be kept for scientific departments’ teaching, for publicly displaying departmental achievements, as a way of engaging with the public, and as a resource for historians.

And old scientific specimens sometimes assume new scientific uses. “What was Quaternary Science has a wonderful collection of slides showing pollen found in peat beds,” says Professor Jardine. “There was a period when such things were collected, and then disciplines turned against the collector mentality and natural history. Now, with people fascinated with climate change and biodiversity, all that material people were busy throwing away is once again riveting – it’s come back into use, but for a different purpose.”

As well as the sheer volume of material, the size and appearance of much recent scientific heritage makes it difficult to preserve and display. A gene sequencing device, for example, would fill a room and, compared with a 14th century brass astrolabe, it’s hardly attractive.

“Most of the objects in the Whipple or the Science Museum are beautiful, iconic objects and it’s reasonably clear from looking at them what they are for. They are artworks in their own right,” says Professor Jardine, “whereas a lot of things in use now are either enormous or tiny, and they are either a black box of no visible function or a whole room full of stuff that’s wired up. So it's quite problematic.”

Despite the challenges, as departments decamp from the city centre to West Cambridge, the project is timely. “Lots of recent scientific heritage is under threat for the specific reason that departments dispose of stuff when they move, and there’s lots of moving going on,”  Jardine says. And it might, in 60 years time, ensure Cambridge keeps – rather than loses – a piece of its scientific heritage as important as Watson and Crick’s model.