Research at the RBML | Glenda Sluga uses the Wellington Koo papers to tell a story of economic development

Professor Glenda Sluga, author of The Invention of International Order: Remaking Europe After Napoleon, recently visited the RBML to extend her research on the intellectual foundations of international cooperation into the twentieth century. Examining the Wellington Koo and David Owen collections, Sluga is investigating how ideas about economic development were expressed in the founding of the United Nations.  Below, Sluga describes her archival approach and some of her finds.


How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?

The RBML has amazing archives when it comes to the history of the UN, because so many people who worked there, or had some association with the UN have left their papers to the RBML.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

I discovered all sorts of interesting things – Gunnar Myrdal, the head of the UN economic commission for Europe, writing to David Owen, who is running the Economic and Social Council (and to whom Myrdal answers), about an ‘old lady’ who comes into his office to encourage him to be involved in a Moscow Conference in 1952 that is meant to open up trade between East and West. The old lady, it turns out, is a famous Australian, Jessie Street. She was a vocal advocate for women’s rights, and indigenous rights, and one of the few women in the original Australian delegation to the UNCIO, in San Francisco in 1945 – the conference that was to draft a UN Charter. Street is so interesting, and to see her moving in and out of these offices gives this whole period and the fraught politics of the Cold War at the UN a human cast.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

I found a Chinese bureaucrat at the UN advocating for a planetary politics in 1945. This is extraodinary, and it speaks to the range of economic thinking that international organizations inspired through the 20th century. My project wants to capture that history.

What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Use it ambitiously and intuitively to find really exciting information about all kinds of topics that we cannot always get a sense of by sticking to institutional or state archives.