The Sciences

A New Science Archives Preserves the Ways of Seeing Science's People

The curators of an art installation at the venue hope the exhibit will "de-science" science.

Bengaluru: “Find, tell, share stories”, a poster proclaims at the newly-opened archives of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.

The poster just outside the glass doors of the basement facility. Are they a simple, heartfelt plea to the visitor? Or do they embody the spirit in which the NCBS Archives have been created? Venkat Srinivasan, the head of the facility, says, “Both.”

A look at the facility’s early vision document reveals the mission.

“An archival record is a fragment of a story. The narratives of our lives give rise to these things we call collections, manuscripts, oral history interviews, each an abstract item sitting in the physical and digital shelves of an archive,” the document says.

“Archives enable diverse stories. We keep that in mind when we look for archival material: every person has many stories, and every story has many people.”

And these stories are best told through connections.

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It’s not easy to work with archival material in India because they’re hard to access and record-keeping in general is not up to the mark. At the centre of this mess stands the new archives: “We at the Archives at NCBS are developing an interconnected science archive project linking storytelling to historic material and scientific research.”

The idea is to get people to connect disparate archival records flung across repositories, “and we are building a space that makes it easier for multiple interpretations and stories to emerge from the raw data.”

Srinivasan, by his own account, has been enchanted by multiple, and often unexpected, stories that emerge from these records.

His favourite example is a field note from a survey that counted tree-living mammals, by ecologist Ajith Kumar.

The paper “was perforated all over with very specific patterns. Braille paper,” Srinivasan recalled. “Kumar explained that in the early 1980s, good paper that did not blot was expensive for field biology students. A blind colleague of his used to get copies of the Bible in Braille from a church in the US. The thick, non-blotting paper was perfect for a forest: he asked the church for some copies, and the Bibles poured in.”

The paper demonstrated the presence of multiple stories behind a single, everyday object.

Credit: Ravi Kumar Boyapati

Credit: Ravi Kumar Boyapati

“That note – an archival record – suddenly came alive with multiple ways of seeing. It hinted at stories of evangelism, of research chutzpah, and yes, of population counts of mammals. We often forget that it is the connection and multitude of such narratives that make up the world we know,” Srinivasan said.

And the archivist should be able to say, in a few lines, why an object is worth preserving. This can be a letter between two scientists discussing an experiment or broaching a collaboration, a lab notebook filled with results conclusive or otherwise, a microscope’s lens.

Even a bottle of old nail polish – which “was either used for marking, or just a way to relax in the middle of a lonely midnight experiment,” a member of the archives’ team joked.

The project has been in the making for two years. In this time, the team has acquired, organised and archived five manuscript collections from various scientists, including Obaid Siddiqi, K.S. Krishnan and Ravi Sankaran, from NCBS as well as other institutes. The archives also include collections from NCBS’s administrative sections and oral history interviews.

It’s not all paper and letters. There are also photographs, scientific equipment, fine art and audio recordings.

And their location itself signifies an archival act of sorts. They’re all housed in what used to be the sprawling, and bustling, lab of Siddiqi, a pioneering molecular biologist and the founder-director of NCBS.

The facility has been designed to store archival records, process new collections, and also includes space to sit down and read. An online catalogue is also available to browse.

At its opening ceremony on Monday, Srinivasan and co. also inaugurated an interactive art installation. Called ‘Backstage of Biology’, it includes letters, laboratory equipment and pictures from the early days of some NCBS scientists and from a variety of research topics.

“Find, tell, share stories”. Credit: Ravi Kumar Boyapati

“Find, tell, share stories”. Credit: Ravi Kumar Boyapati

Meera Baindur, Srajana Kaikini and Naveen Mahantesh, the curators, said that they hope the exhibit will “de-science” science.

“When people come to the archives, they should not expect science objects to be what they are in the real world,” Baindur elaborated. “These objects have been pulled out of their scientific contexts and made into a historical context, where they will have historical stories to tell about the object. They will tell stories of their significance much beyond science.”

A large part of the display is dedicated to the fruit fly, a model organism used widely in biology research, together with how NCBS scientists have studied it.

Other narratives on show include correspondence and pictures. Notable among them is a letter from 1990 written by Veronica Rodrigues, a neurobiologist. It is a fierce request to the institute’s administration to do away with the titles of ‘kumari’ and ‘Mrs’ for female scientists unless male scientists are addressed similarly.

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Satyajit Mayor, the director of NCBS, said the archives were created partly because they needed a space to reflect on the past.

“We felt this quite keenly when NCBS turned 25” in 2017, and “Siddiqi wasn’t around,” he recalled. “During his tenure, we saw that he recognised and kept any note or scribble that he felt was of importance.”

It was the start of a realisation that “if we ever are to understand an individual and his motivations, institutes and their directions, we need a place where we can reflect on these articles of history.”

The ultimate goal is to link scientists, historians, journalists, communicators and the people. To this end, Srinivasan has also been organising monthly public lectures since last year. Speakers have included scientists, art conservators, economists and historians who have used and worked with archival material.

Renuka Kulkarni is a science writer at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru. She has worked as an assistant researcher at the NCBS Archives, and is interested in the history of science in India.