December 4, 1987. In just about legible cursive handwriting, Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick writes a letter to Obaid Siddiqi, professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, apologising for failing to come and meet him in Mumbai. Now the letter lies carefully placed in a paper file, inside a small cardboard box, in a steel locker at the Archives of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru.
A glass case with colourful conch shells sits in the reading room of the Archives. Another fragment of the same story is a map of Tamil Nadu with handwritten phone numbers, names, dates and places to visit. These are part of the collections of the late scientist K.S. Krishnan, who studied conotoxins, venoms and published papers on the therapeutic value of certain peptide toxins from Indian cone snails.
Over 50,000 such objects at the NCBS Archives — letters, photographs, old instruments, notebooks — tell stories of people at this institution and how science blossomed here.
The basement that houses the Archives was once the laboratory of geneticist, neurobiologist and founder of NCBS, the late Prof. Siddiqi, whose birth anniversary was on January 7. The oldest document in the Archives is his school leaving certificate from 1946.
The Archives also houses an exhibition room curated by Meera Baindur, philosophy faculty and coordinator at Bengaluru Central University, and Srajana Kaikini, an independent writer, and architect Naveen Mahantesh.
A black wall is the first thing that catches my eye. And it bears the definition of a wall: “An architectural element intending to segregate, separate and fortify a space by forming a boundary.” The wall is filled with hashtags: #peopleofbiology, #geekspeak, #labfly. “Stories are made and remade and they depend on an individual perspective... The whole idea was challenging as the space we used went from a lab to an empty room to a gallery,” says Kaikini.
“We wanted it to be more than an exhibition to the public by giving it more layers of meaning by adding a critical commentary. I would call it a curatorial complex and not an exhibition if I were to stay true to the story. Exhibitions usually end up being very straightforward with accompanying captions. We wanted to make the observer take part and be able to tell the story in their own way too,” she says .
The exhibition includes everyday objects used in a lab, the backstage of biology — microscopic slides, Petri dishes, mugs, cameras, and broken eyepieces from microscopes. The centre of the room has a light box, and the wall next to it bears projections of old photographs.
Put together by over 45 people, each object in the Archives helps reknit a historical narrative of the discipline of biology in India in a coherent fashion seldom seen in the field of science in India.
By making itself accessible to the public — people can walk in to read or work or nap — the Archive helps shape not just curricula in schools and colleges but creates an understanding of science history among lay people. “As we build the physical and digital archive at NCBS, we hope it situates itself at the intersection of four silos in society: the scientific community that generates archival material, the historians of science that interpret this archival material, the communicators and interrogators of science for a non-academic audience, and the public itself,” writes Venkat Srinivasan, archivist, in the vision statement.
“Everything here is donated, including the furniture. You can be an engineer or scientist and can donate all your scientific papers or lab materials. If you have material from a field biologist or scientist that you think tells a science story, you can donate it too,” says Srinivasan.
Neha Panwar, one of the staff at the Archives, sits in the middle of a pile of old books, papers and bills, and is immersed in sorting them out, deciding what makes it and what doesn’t. Hidden amid the reams of faded, handwritten letters and ancient notebooks are stories of science waiting to be told and heard. Panwar picks up a paper and reads aloud: “Smelling is injurious to health. I wish I couldn’t smell,” it says. She tells me it has no name or date, making it impossible to know who wrote it or why. “Prof. Siddiqi’s lab was working on the olfactory system. I wonder what deep emotion these words hide,” she says with a smile.