FENS 2019 - MA students get a taste of the Archives

Leah, Corinne and Emily standing in front of installed exhibition
29 November 2019
By Leah, Corinne, and Emily
MA students in Archives and Records Management at University College Dublin

On 15-18 October 2019, The Nutrition Society hosted the 13th European Nutrition Conference on behalf of the Federation of European Nutrition Societies (FENS) in Dublin, Ireland. As students of the MA in Archives and Records Management at University College Dublin, we volunteered our services to Sheila Mercieca, the Society’s Archives, Library and Records Manager, who held an exhibition on the history of the FENS Conference. Photographs and original documents from the Nutrition Society Archives were used to tell the story of the Conference from its first, experimental outing in 1946, through its official inauguration in Cambridge in 1973, to the present day.

FENS members were thus treated to their first-ever glimpse of the archival record of the FENS Conference, which encapsulates a compelling history of Europe-wide collaboration, co-operation, and good fellowship. Attendees were captivated, and Sheila was kept very busy! Over the four days, the exhibition attracted impressive numbers of visitors, and many were eager not just to explore the history of the FENS quadrennial meetings but also to enrich it by sharing their own insights and memories. New life was breathed into old documents, and this itinerant archive participated in a dynamic interaction between past and present.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Conference in Dublin, Sheila employed her skills and knowledge as an archivist to plan the exhibition in meticulous detail. Display panels relating to each of the thirteen FENS conferences were designed; plinths were ordered for the display of large items; a time-lapsed sequence of digitised poster images were prepared for display on a plasma screen beside the exhibition walls; and labels were produced to accompany every featured item from the archive. Once the separate components of the exhibition had travelled from England to Ireland by ferry, there would be only one day to assemble them all in situ at the Convention Centre Dublin before the delegates arrived. As archivists-in-training, we were glad of this opportunity to gain some practical experience and answered Sheila’s call for volunteers with enthusiasm.

After hammering many L-shaped pins into the 14 exhibition walls, the concertina shape centrepiece of the exhibition was ready. Each of these walls represented one meeting of the FENS Conference, and was topped by a flag of the country where the conference was held. Previously we had regarded the ‘archivist’s toolkit’ as something abstract – a set of acquired skills and techniques the archivist applies in the performance of her duties – we quickly learned that this toolkit needs to contain some actual tools!

It was hugely satisfying, and a lot of fun, to play this small role in bringing Sheila’s idea for the exhibition to life. There could be no doubting the enthusiasm for archival engagement amongst this group of eminent European nutritionists. The Archive of the Nutrition Society is a wonderful resource, and one for which there is a demonstrable public appetite. Archivists have been called many things in the professional literature: custodians of historical ‘truth’; mediators of recorded social memory; facilitators of community memory-making… we discovered that DIY aficionados should be added to this list.