Fish fingers and the coal face: launching the Tavistock Institute archive blog

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By | From the Collections

How do you organise the workplace so that it better reflects the needs of its workers? What do housewives think of fish fingers? How can psychology be used and applied to recruitment processes, to help get away from wearing-the-right-colour-tie biases and nepotism? How does environmental design impact crime levels? How do you make sense of group dynamics and how organisations develop and change?

These are just some of the diverse and difficult questions asked by a team of maverick and left-field social scientists at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) over the course of the latter half of the 20th century. These questions, answers, dilemmas, and workings-through are all documented in the extensive 70 year archive of the Tavistock, which is currently in the process of being catalogued and made accessible as part of a two year collaborative project between TIHR and the Wellcome Library.

In the run-up to the Institute’s anniversary in 2017, we will be releasing over 300 boxes of previously-inaccessible material into the public domain, dating back to the Institute’s formation in the 1940s to the current day. These papers document both the working methods and processes of social scientists and anthropologists working on the edge, and the key methodological workings and practices of key industrial and organisational projects. Field notebooks, letters, reports, and working notes will all be opened up for researchers to make sense of, engage with, analyse and (re)interpret at the Wellcome Library.


To help researchers get their hands on this material as quickly as possible, we will be releasing the archive in phased batches, culminating in a festival to celebrate the Tavistock’s work in Autumn 2017. Over the course of the next 18 months, the release of materials will be marked through a programme of dynamic, participatory, and artistic events and interventions, aimed at highlighting the diverse and exciting research possibilities of the collection, and exploring how the archive can be used in the ‘here and now’.

This is a big week for the project, as it marks the launch of our project blog. We will be using this space to expose the inner workings of the cataloguing work, to shine a light on how the archive plays into an organisation’s memory and future, and as a diary to document the project team’s excitements, anticipations, frustrations and thoughts as we explore and interrogate the history of Tavistock.

In my role as TIHR Archivist, I’ve got hundreds of boxes to wade through, categorise, and interpret, but this is much more than just a cataloguing project. Tavistock Institute 2017 is a sociocultural curatorial project; an intervention designed to reflect the workings of the institute itself. As such, we are taking a new approach to the process of cataloguing itself*, challenging ourselves to be more reflective in our thinking, and finding ways to be more creative and dynamic in our outreach and engagement activities – watch this space!

make something beautiful

Our overall ambition is to make this project a conversation between the past and present, creating a dialogue between the research community and project team. We invite you to join the conversation on the blog, follow the story on twitter #archive2017, and tell us what you make of it all.

*Note to archive geeks and fellow cardigan-wearers: This collection will be catalogued following the principles of series-based thinking, with an emphasis on authority files rather than a traditional hierarchical structure.

Elena Carter

Elena Carter

Tavistock Institute of Human Relations Archivist, based at the Wellcome Library. Working on a project to catalogue, make accessible and promote the rich and vast archive of TIHR, documenting 70 years of the Institute’s contribution to the evolution of applied social science. I like biscuits with my tea, swimming outdoors, and post-war architecture. I also like elephants. @elenacarter17

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