Unlocking Archives – Unilever Historical Archives
Article by Prof Stephanie Decker, Professor at Aston Business School specializing in organizational history and international strategy. Originally published here: https://orghist.com/2019/06/21/unlocking-archives-unilever-historical-archives/
On 20th June 2019 Unilever kindly hosted (with additional support from the University of Liverpool) a workshop showcasing the amazing material that can be found within business archives. It was a really great day to learn more about how different researchers are using the collections and the great work by archivist who make all of this accessible to the public.
Keynote by Valerie Johnson, Director of Research, The National Archives
Business archives – a bit of a passion killer?
Valerie Johnson opened her keynote by highlighting that business archives are often seen as dull and uninteresting – to the point she was once told by a conference organizers that he had not expected her research talk about business archives to be so interesting. Nothing could not be further from the truth. For almost any subject of interest to researchers, business archives have materials, as companies were often spearheading new developments (e.g. technology), were embedded in social and cultural trends of the day (e.g. the culture of imperialism), design history (e.g. in the Board of Trade archives) to name but a few.
In a whistle stop tour through a wide range of archives, Johnson illustrated the history of women at work through an architectural map in the ING Barings Archive, and the representations of empire in the textiles archive of John Lewis, and the United Africa Company trademarks at Unilever Historical Archives.
To get a better sense of what Unilever Historical Archives do, see their
Instagram site: https://www.instagram.com/unileverarchives/
Johnson closed by reiterating that business records offer magnificent materials and insights into society, technology and attitudes of the past, not just the records of business operations in the narrow sense. So she closed with highlighting the importance of:
Putting the passion back into business archives!
Snippets from archival research
The day continued with wide-ranging research presentations. The morning opened with Jeanette Strickland introducing the audience to William Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers (one half of the original Unilever), a formidable businessmen and somewhat of a micro-manager.
This was followed by Frank Thorpe, University of Liverpool, talking about advertising and beyond. His presentation is based on his doctoral thesis that investigates the changing attitudes towards personal hygiene, or “BO”, and how
products like deodorant were gendered and stigmatized at times. At Unilever, he
has researched uncatalogued material, but also used a range of online newspaper
archives to understand the context within which these adverts appeared.
Ronnie Hughes offered a different view on Port Sunlight, the location of the Unilever factory and archives, where the workshop took place, by asking a key question:
What must it have been like to live in someone else’s utopia 100 years after they died?
Walking through Port Sunlight village in the morning before the workshop, this is not unlike the question we asked ourselves – would we actually like to live here,
as beautiful as it is? As a heritage site, it has a very distinct and unique
feel, which is unlike other neighbourhoods. Hughes highlights that he has asked
communities questions about what their perfect place would look like before
starting this research project. He blogs at A Sense of Place.
Prof Matt Reed finished the morning session by outlining his search for the ‘origin story’ of the collaboration between Unilever and the University of Liverpool, which dates back to 1906, which was “multi-faceted and sporadic.”
Lever donated money to a number of departments, including Civic Design and town planning. The Department of Industrial Chemistry was particularly well aligned with Lever’s business interests. Reed finished with a reflection of the value
of searching archives versus the self-taught googling that passes for research
outside of archives.
The afternoon sessions kicked off with Dr Rory Miller’s exploration of why David Fieldhouse’s Unilever Overseas is missing a chapter on Latin America – apparently he fell out with his research assistant. 25 years ago, Miller first visited the Unilever archives to find out what was actually available on Unilever’s business in Argentina and beyond. Perusing the directors’ visiting reports, he outlined how Argentinians rarely bought Lifebuoy soap other than to wash their dogs.
In her talk about the design process, Dr Lee Wright highlighted the potential importance of archives for the design practice and the sourcing of design ideas. In her teaching, students reference the past through images they source from Pinterest, highlighting the significance of social media sites in mediating our visual understanding of the past.
The day closed with two fascinating talks, the first by Prof Iain Jackson about the development of urban architecture in Accra, Ghana in the mid-twentieth century. While the National Archives had more material on the European settlements of Accra, within other archives, such as the United Africa Company collection at Unilever, mercantile areas such as Jamestown are much better documented. Some of his collected images are available in an online book available via issuu.com (search “Accra”) here.
The workshop closed with Claire Tunstall describing their mission and how the archives has to serve many different stakeholders: internal divisions, brands and communications, outreach with schools, partnership with museums and universities and, of course, the Port Sunlight Village Trust, as well as researchers.
Hopefully, more such events, at Unilever or other major archives, will take place in the future. The workshop did not just have great presentations but also offered great opportunities to meet a wide variety of people interested in using and promoting archives.
|10 am Registration Tea & coffee|
|10.20 Welcome, introductory remarks and housekeeping
– Claire Tunstall and Jeannette Strickland
|10.30 Keynote Dr Valerie Johnson, Director of Research & Collections, The National Archives “What’s the use? Your research and business archives”|
|11.15-12.30 Session 1 Chair: Prof Stephanie Decker, Aston University|
|11.15 Jeannette Strickland, Department of History, University of Liverpool, “Finding William Lever, the man behind the myth”|
|11.30 Frank Thorpe, Department of History, University of Liverpool, “Beyond the ad: filling gaps and finding new gaps”|
|11.45 Ronnie Hughes, Department of Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology, University of Liverpool, “Looking for Utopia”|
|12.00 Dr Matt Reed, Strategy Director, Materials Innovation Factory, University of Liverpool, “Turn every page”|
Tours of Unilever Archives available at 12.45 and 1.10
|2.00-3.00 Session 2 – Chair: Dr Valerie Johnson, The National Archives|
|2.10 Dr Rory Miller, formerly Reader in the Management School, University of Liverpool, “The Missing Chapter in David Fieldhouse’s Unilever Overseas: Unilever’s Expansion in Latin America in the Mid-Twentieth Century”|
|2.30 Dr Lee Wright, Senior Lecturer in the History and Theory of Design, Liverpool School of Art and Design, Liverpool John Moores University, “The value of archives and their potential to impact current design practice”|
|3.20-4.20 Session 3 – Chair: Jeannette Strickland, University of Liverpool|
|3.20 Prof Iain Jackson, School of Architecture, University of Liverpool, “Traders, speculators, taste makers: the United Africa Company in Ghana”|
|3.40 Claire Tunstall, Head of Art, Archives & Records Management, Unilever plc, “The research potential of Unilever Archives”|
|4.20 Summing up and closing remarks|
|4.30 Optional post-workshop drink at the Bridge Inn in Port Sunlight|