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Exploding the Archives: lost histories of advertising the atom

Mercer-Jones, Elaine



Recent years have seen a growing interest in what is left out of an archive as much as what is put in: the silences and the absences. Why is information we might expect to find in an archive sometimes not there at all, the questions we might have about the past remaining unanswered. Some of Trouillot’s (1995) archive “silences” concern materials left out because they were not perceived as important resources at the time of an archive’s creation. Other silences are deliberate, the work of governments or companies who do not regard certain materials as being appropriate for public examination.
What happens when two such silences coalesce? When a historian goes in search of ephemera produced by a government-owned company of notorious secrecy? How can the historian negotiate limited and fragmented archive resources, lack of institutional transparency, or the disappointment of being informed that “ephemera . . . rarely find their way into archives”?
This paper discusses the difficulties of trying to locate marketing communications used by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) during the emergence and growth of neoliberal marketing in the 1980s and 1990s, when a new narrative about nuclear power was being created in the UK. To begin with, it explores the diversity of material associated with postmodern marketing communications – material often dismissed as “ephemera” (ie. considered to be of short-term interest and little historical value). It will also discuss the difficulties of locating such sources, particularly when they are produced by an organisation that was regarded as “secretive and dishonest” for much of its history (Cartwright, 1989). It will explore the diverse locations where such historical materials might be found, and will suggest ways in which BNFL’s institutional archival silences might be negotiated. The chapter will be illustrated with an analysis of marketing materials and artefacts pertaining to BNFL that were produced during the 1980s and 1990s, showing that, once found, these “atoms” of historical ephemera can be used to tell a powerful story: how BNFL used marketing communications to “bananlise” what was perceived by the public as a dirty, dangerous and secretive technology.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name Shaking the Archive
Start Date Jun 23, 2023
End Date Jun 25, 2023
Deposit Date Mar 19, 2024
Keywords archives, nuclear, BNFL
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