Emergency action to preserve KI’s history

Published 2018-02-28 14:43. Updated 2018-03-19 13:01Denna sida på svenska
Historisk bild från Farmakologiska instutionen (Fyfa) 1948
Bild från inskannat fotoalbum från Farmakologiska institutionen 1948-51 (nuvarande Fyfa): "Amanuens CM Ideström bestämmer cornealreflexen vid barbituratpåverkan hos sin assistent fröken K Holmquist."A picture from a 1948-51 Pharmacological department (today Fyfa) photo album: "Amanuensis CM Ideström determines the corneal reflexes of his assistant Miss K Holmquist during barbiturate influence." 

2018 will see the biggest removal operation in Karolinska Institutet’s history. Now the Unit for Medical History and Heritage (MHK) is searching for objects with stories to preserve for posterity.

Olof Ljungström är medicinhistoriker på KI. Foto: Gunnar AskMany objects and documents will be consigned to the rubbish bin when 60 per cent of the staff will move and most of the labs and animal facilities are to be refurbished.

"We are standing on the brink of what will to all intents and purposes be one of the world’s biggest biomedical-historical container raids, at one of the world’s most interesting biomedical research environments,” says Olof Ljungström when we meet at his workplace in Haga Tingshus, which is also home to the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library.

The unit works with the preservation of the history of medicine and science at Karolinska Institutet. Among other things they have issued a guide as to what is worth preserving that is an adapted version of one from the Countway Library at Harvard. There are critical points in a person’s career when the question arises of what to save – when a person retires, when one’s office is to be emptied or when someone dies. Objects then often come to light that may be important pieces of the puzzle when describing Karolinska Institutet’s history.

“When bacteriologist and Professor of Biotechnology C.G. Hedén died, in his house we found a cupboard that turned out to be a portable home laboratory! We imagine that the professor wanted to have it to be able to carry out simple laboratory experiments at home when he felt like it. We’ve taken charge of that.”

What should be kept when the move is made?

The special nature of five major departments being divided up all at once leads to what Olof Ljungström calls a hasty ‘death clearance’ where there is a risk that most things will be thrown away and will be gone for ever. MHK are therefore asking KI’s staff to contact them if they find documents or objects when they are clearing out their premises that may be of importance for the university’s history of medicine and science.

“If anyone finds themselves choosing between the garbage container and the moving crate, we want to be the third alternative. We want to be available for researchers and other employees of the university who have items that are worth preserving. There is now a great need to quickly find somewhere for intermediate storage where KI’s employees can hand documents and items in.”

The items tell a story

What Olof Ljungström and his colleagues are looking for are items that tell a story. Relying on archived material alone does not give the entire picture because archiving regulations mainly apply to abstract documents.

“In general, the history of medicine is on an abstract level while day-to-day research work is on the contrary highly concrete. As historians we like to differentiate between “science” as actually an ideological concept and research, which is tangible and concrete. And it’s objects with stories that are sources of our research that we’re looking for. The objects can then, together with their stories, form important units to describe the history of KI for posterity.”

Olof Ljungström and his colleagues share their interest in preserving Karolinska Institutet’s history with the recently set up WikiKI group, a grass-roots initiative on the part of the staffs of the departments concerned. Their objective is to collect and document as much as possible of the university’s history on and around campus when the move takes place. The heart of their project is wikiki.se where they collect the information.

Text: Stina Moritz