Learning and the empowering awareness of precariousness

Learning and the empowering awareness of precariousness

A journey into archiving the historical contemporary.


11 December 2015

A journey into archiving the historical contemporary.

Madeleine Marshall and Athanasia Mavroudi recently joined the Tavistock Institute for a number of weeks to work on a specific task for the Archive Project. In this article they reflect on the learning and insights gained during the experience.

Madeleine Marshall

As a recent graduate from the Heritage Sector, this role within the Tavistock Institute’s Archive Project appealed to me for several reasons. Firstly, as a Paper Conservator I am fortunate to have worked in several institutions as part of my studies, and so am familiar with dealing with archival material. Secondly, I have been mostly involved with Collections Management positions since graduation, and this experience adds to my existing skill set. Lastly, the location of the project intrigued me, as the Tavistock Institute building is not a purpose built facility for an archival project, and would pose some interesting challenges.

My training in Paper Conservation has enabled me to treat paper artefacts from artworks to archival ephemera of varying ages and condition. From my understanding of the Tavistock Institute’s history, following initial research and the interview, I presumed there would be a lot of historical documents present. However upon starting the project, it was apparent that we were dealing with a very contemporary part of the archive, circa 1999 onwards, so it was unusual for me to process otherwise modern material in the scope of a larger historical collection. No doubt someone will access this collection in years to come, and consider documents from the 21st Century the way we consider documents from the 19th Century.

The appraisal required the extraction of documents that were not relevant to the core of the archive, and listing in the appropriate categories, which sounds more straight forward than it is. We were managing large volumes of material that were often not ordered in a comprehensible way and of content that was not always easy to place, i.e. paperwork from the same project distributed over several boxes, not in succession. Although slightly overwhelming during the first week, I found the more material was processed, the quicker my judgement became in recognising what was significant and how the documents correlated together.

Athanasia Mavroudi

Reflecting on my surroundings, my material, my co-workers, and my own place in the Archive Project at the Tavistock Institute has been affected by my background as a teacher, social anthropologist, heritage practitioner and corporeal feminism advocate whose practice and viewpoint has revolved around critical theory and deconstruction, which has often led to an inner schism. Reflecting on my own learning during my placement as a student archivist for the Tavistock Institute necessarily entails traces of all of the above aspects of my learning experience so far. Ironically, this also includes my own critical awareness of the mythology around self-identities and, consequently the misapprehension of an autonomous self-identical subject.

Unlike a way of learning that is mostly based on the interaction with other members, the brewing of different opinions, and the forces that derive from and shape knowledge while creating it, my exploration was a rather more solitary path. Working alone for most of the time, physically, as well as metaphorically, without the safety net of guidance from a more experienced professional, the challenge was on for me. I had only few weeks and not much information on what material I might encounter, let alone how this material should be treated in order to do justice to its value in the history of the Tavistock Institute. As a teacher, I had been advocating autonomous learning for more than ten years but as a student now myself the tables had turned; the only authoritative figure now was myself which was intimidating and liberating as a potential presupposition for a deeper kind of learning related not only to its subject but also to its experiential process.

A shared conclusion

Learning to open up did not necessarily comply with everyone else’s perception; self-doubt and uncertainty might not always be welcome in a well-structured system of pre-existing perceptions of what empowers and makes a competent professional, not the least in an environment promoting leadership. Yet, in my journey I found that embracing it and communicating it made my own learning experience meaningful. The office environment encouraged us to use our practical resources and the autonomous approach the staff at the Tavistock Institute adopt has encouraged me to trust my own judgement and seek reassurance from myself.

Madeleine Marshall and Athanasia Mavroudi
Archive Project Interns, The Tavistock Institute 

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