What is the archive of the 1990s?

This post is the sixth in a series of six blogs which will document and critically engage with a workshop series hosted by Dr. David Geiringer (QMUL) and Dr. Helen McCarthy (Cambridge) under the title ‘Rethinking Britain in the 1990s: Towards a new research agenda’. Running between January and March 2021, the series brings together contemporary historians from a range of career stages to map existing work and stimulate new thinking on a decade which, from the perspective of our present times, looks very unfamiliar indeed.

by Amy Gower (University of Reading)

Neoliberal consensus? A digital revolution? A cultural feedback loop? Over this past term, historians have problematised these metanarratives of Britain in the nineties and suggested alternative frameworks of analysis. But how might the collections, archives, and sources of the nineties help us to answer these questions? In this final workshop, a panel of historians and archivists explored the archive of the nineties as it stands, and crucially, what we might shape it into.

Government papers, voluntary sector archives, and the Mass Observation Project were all shown to be potentially transformative for understanding the nebulous relationships between citizen and state, the connections between high politics and the everyday, and to clarify analyses of the 1990s as a pivot point. As Jennifer Crane stated, none of these sources or archives are a smoking gun to solve the problems of researching the 1990s, but they can help historians refine our questions, and perhaps take a more active role in building an archive of the 1990s. Answering the question, ‘Was the 1990s a holiday from history ?’, perhaps depends on where we look.

Drawing upon Colm Murphy’s earlier provocation which offered a ‘constitutional lens’ for rethinking politics in the nineties, Jennifer Crane argued that we might find evidence of a turning point in the relationship between state and citizen through an examination of voluntary sector records. Small charities amplified and brought the personal and the experiential into policy, offering historians a way to connect high politics and the everyday. Crane drew on examples from her own work on the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, whose records reveal not only the repackaging of longer-term eugenicist ideas about intelligence for a new millennium, but also the resistance of gifted children, who wrote to the charity expressing their frustration at regular testing and the burden of the ‘gifted’ label. Crane’s experiences in seeking out collections not yet held in archives and mediating between voluntary organisations and archivists demonstrate the huge potential such an approach holds for historians of the 1990s.

The connections between the high political and the everyday were also drawn out by Catherine Haddon, who made the case for writing a history of technology in government. Haddon argued that the slow and clunky transition from clerical systems of information and record management to digital ones reveals the changes and continuities in how government functioned at an everyday level, as civil servants and ministers clung to the centuries-old formality of minutes and memoranda alongside the ‘PowerPoint years’ of New Labour and the ‘Excel years’ of the 2010s.

Key features of the new Windows 95 are presented by Friends stars Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry: ‘Look Mattie, I’m computing!’

Haddon noted the potential loss of familiar features of written records in the transition to digital; how do scribbled marginal notes on meeting agendas translate to google docs and pdfs? The issue of technological fragmentation was raised in the discussion by Rafaelle Nicholson, echoing Jane Winters’ earlier comments on reconstructing user experiences of websites through user manuals. Tracing the responses of government officials to televised news, and connecting this to printed minutes and emails poses frustrating and laborious obstacles for historians hoping to trace lines of communication spread across multiple archives.

Centring the experiential cut across both Haddon and Rosie Perry’s presentations. Perry took the audience through the newlydigitised 1990s phase of the Mass Observation Project (MOP), made up of directives and responses of volunteers asked to write about their lives and opinions. The 1990s for Mass Observation marked a change in scope; under the direction of Dorothy Sheridan, life story narratives and personal topics increasingly characterised directives, replacing the focus on current affairs which had dominated the MOP of the 1980s. This shift, Perry demonstrated, provides historians with greater access to the shifting social attitudes of the 1990s, such as sex and relationships, than previous phases of MOP had offered.

The importance of the experiential which drove this change was reinforced by Haddon’s suggestion that oral history might help us to contextualise written records in an everyday moment. With written records alone, historians might miss how damaged phonelines during the 1987 storm saw civil servants scrambling for 10p pieces to use in the nearby phone box, and how, during Black Wednesday in 1992, the redecoration of Downing Street meant time-sensitive policy decisions were made in a room without a Reuters screen displaying all-important real-time market information (Haddon has explored this further in a recent Politico podcast). The experiential provides another way of connecting the high political and the everyday, as Perry offered polarised responses to directives about the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and Britain’s relationship to Europe, reminiscent of the comment sections of recent press coverage of the Royal Family and Brexit.

Screenshot of the Header Image on the Mass Observation project 1981-2009 Website (University of Sussex) via

The shift in methodology of researchers in the 1990s noted by Perry was echoed by Andrew Riley. Recalling his experiences as an archivist of the Thatcher papers in the late-1990s, Riley reflected on the aspirations of organisations to become digital in the new millennium, aspirations which have not always been fulfilled. Riley’s reflections on the sector resonated with Crane’s calls for increased collaboration between record holders, historians, archivists, and museums colleagues to bring new, diverse, and rich materials into the formal archive sensitively. However, the changes in structure and organisation which occurred throughout the 1990s do present significant challenges. As Riley showed, the outsourcing of government services to private companies and the abolition of large bureaucratic bodies such as the Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority led to greater record keeping responsibilities for smaller borough archives, issues familiar to those of us tracing local educational change.

One major theme of this workshop series was to consider the extent to which the 1990s marked a break with the past. Crane and Haddon argued that the decade could be viewed as a turning point through their respective source bases, in the erosion of the boundaries of the public and private, and in the issues of information management which plague government still today. Examining the construction of archives in the 1990s also flags up crucial methodological issues for historians. Riley’s comments on the acquisition of ‘shiny buildings’ for archives through lottery funding in the 1990s but persistence of low staffing levels remind us that the development of a heritage economy noted by Sam Wetherell had a direct impact on the form of the archive of the 1990s. This was echoed by Perry’s explanation of the shift in MOP priorities under Dorothy Sheridan, demonstrating further the symbiotic relationship between the academic discipline and the historical subject explored previously in this series by Kennetta Hammond Perry and Saul Dubow.

Drawing out connections between the practices of historians and heritage institutions in the 1990s, and histories of the nineties also raised vital issues around the construction of the archive. Technological change and the digitisation of records impacts the small decisions we make when conducting archival research. Perry and David Geiringer discussed the increased number of typed versus handwritten responses to MOP, and the privileging of these more legible documents by researchers and by the digitisation process itself. Both Riley and Crane considered the ethics of collecting, and whether the archive of the nineties presented an opportunity to disrupt hierarchical collecting policies and work across institutions more collaboratively.

The clearest conclusion from this series and this workshop is that the 1990s present a fundamental challenge to historians, not only in developing the skills we need to handle born digital sources, and the more active role we might play in mediating between historical subjects and heritage institutions, but in rethinking our own relationship to our practice. The workshop series has been peppered with personal reflections and nostalgia, but, as Hannah J. Elizabeth suggested this week, is the question of our own positionality within the period a distraction from more uncomfortable questions about our roles as historians? These discussions reminded me of the propositions of Kennetta Hammond Perry and Lucy Robinson in the cultural narratives workshop. The 1990s might provide a way of working, using post-rave or the sample as a framework to complicate narratives of the decade.

The perspectives of PhD researchers and ECRs who were born in, and therefore in some respects ‘missed’ the 1990s, was something the organisers wanted to bring to the fore in this series. What happens to narratives of gender, postfeminism, class politics, and media consumption if we take the starting point of kids tv show Maid Marian and her Merry Men, the subject of impassioned discussion and nostalgia among junior scholars in the third workshop?

Maid Marian and her Merry Men playfully referencing fellow 1990s hit tv show, The Crystal Maze, (episode broadcast January 1994 on BBC1)

Perhaps the 1990s are a method in themselves, offering opportunities for collaboration, and to trouble the distinction between ourselves and our work. The archive of the 1990s therefore not only poses methodological challenges, but also tasks historians to reconsider and push against the disciplinary boundaries with which we have grown comfortable.

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