Since the early 2000s, the BP Archive has served as an invaluable source of information to students and researchers in Middle East Studies hoping to gain insight into the role played by one of the largest transnational oil corporations in the world in the techno-political transformation of the Middle East in the twentieth century. Though housed in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom since 1993, the BP Archive is independent of the center, and there is no official webpage apart from a description on the BP company website directing researchers to contact the archive by email. According to the University of Warwick blog description, the BP archive’s extensive collection of company documents has been in existence since 1921 when the company first made the decision to preserve all in-house documentation of its operations. This essay reconnects the work of the BP Archive as a business strategy and information technology to the building of the first oil industry in the Middle East in southwest Iran in the first half of the twentieth century. It also highlights the archive’s controversial role as research and pedagogical tool.
The year 1921 marked the arrival of John Cadman, future chairman of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935, and British Petroleum or BP from 1954), as technical director of company operations based in southwest Iran, along the Persian Gulf. As the primary source of fuel oil to the British Navy, the efficient organization and management of oil operations was essential for the young company to survive and compete internationally with rival Anglo-American oil corporations already in existence, such as the Royal Dutch and Shell groups, the Burmah Oil Company, and Standard Oil in the United States. The 1920s marked the transformation of a small operation in a little-known corner of southwest Iran into an international corporate entity—a new political actor in the twentieth century.
The construction of the new AIOC headquarters at Finsbury Circus in London by the famed British imperial architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, was accompanied by the creation of specialized departments for exploration, research and development, public relations, and labor. The consolidation of formal administrative and technical divisions within oil operations during the interwar period coincided with the company’s decision to preserve written, photographic, and filmic documentation of its activities. In a parallel development, increasing demands by Indian and Iranian oil workers for improved conditions in housing and work triggered increasing attempts by company officials to make, in their view, the benevolent aspects of oil operations transparent and others, such as striking oil workers and the calculation of production rates, reserve estimates, and royalties, secret.
This practice of managing information and policing boundaries between public and private arenas worked as a business strategy, helping to explain why the company did not grant public access to its archives until decades later in the early 2000s. Tellingly, the company archive granted its own historians, R.W. Ferrier and James H. Bamberg, access to its files first. In the genre of traditional business history, Ferrier and Bamberg were hired to write a massive three-volume company history with the first volume published in 1982, the second in 1994, and the third in 2000.
Somewhat fortuitously, the granting of public access coincided with my graduate studies in the early 2000s when it became evident that the role of nature, science, and technology was missing from much of the historiography on the modern Middle East, particularly concerning the politics of oil. Robert Vitalis, Timothy Mitchell, and Ervand Abrahamian were among the few scholars in the field of Middle East Studies working on the question of oil in this period and encouraged me to make use of the voluminous amounts of information now held at the BP archive.
Today, the archive maintains extensive files that address political, technical, social, and economic aspects of the oil industry in Iran, Kuwait, and Iraq, where the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP), the Kuwait Oil Company, and the Iraq Petroleum Company built their operations, respectively. An additional visual source of archival material concerning BP’s public relations campaigns in southwest Iran can be found at the BP Video Library in London.
The BP Archive as a Research Tool
At first glance, the BP Archive seeks to promote a positive image of transparency, efficiency, and techno-scientific innovation in company operations as a means of framing the narrative of both its past and present. A perusal of the files helps reinforce this account by compartmentalizing the story of oil according to a division of labor that, on the one hand, organizes files in terms of technical and economic activities, and on the other, in terms of social and political activities.
This boundary-making has manifested in scholarship as well where oil has typically been understood in economic terms as a rent while overlooking the activities of oil operations or the ways in which the oil itself, as a liquid material and historical actor, was extracted from the under the ground, transported, and sold with political consequences for the state, political community and nation, and possibilities for democracy. Instead of assuming a causal link between oil and autocracy in the Middle East, research access to the BP archive proved transformative in my research and writing, making possible a sustained critique of this older scholarship from political science and a reassembly of the material files through which the boundary-making or “paperwork” of the archive itself (and therefore, the company narrative and its operation) was organized.
The recent publication of my first manuscript, Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran (MIT Press, 2018) addresses these concerns by drawing on interdisciplinary thinking from Science and Technology Studies (STS). Through an investigation of a series of disputes and crises concerning property rights, methods of accounting, geological knowledge and reserve estimates, the oil labor regime, nationalization, and consortium arrangements, the discussion places the sociotechnical properties of oil at the center of the analysis to argue that producing, transporting, and selling oil from a remote corner of Iran posed numerous problems. Using evidence from company files that are rich in technical detail about oil production, transport, refining and marketing, the book contends that we cannot understand the history and politics of oil without taking seriously its technical dimensions and that the technical world of oil can be understood properly only in terms of the historical and political forces through which that world has been shaped. Industry and company archives such as the BP archive remain underused and offer a rich source of primary research material for scholars and students alike.
The BP Archive as a Pedagogical Tool
The archive has also played a central role in my pedagogy. The design of my course offering, “Empire and Oil: Building the Global Oil Industry in Iran,” is tailored to history and politics students with a focus on BP archival sources as the main teaching tool and source of reading material. The course offers students the opportunity to make use of a vast collection of primary sources including company reports, newspapers, photography, and film, in order to develop an alternative account of the history of oil, specifically of BP, in Iran. Focusing on the anatomy of one company, students follow the transformation of oil through the machinery of oil operations (technical, legal, governmental, administrative), from the initial development of the British-controlled oil industry in the first decade of the twentieth century to the company’s dramatic departure and subsequent return as BP during Iran’s oil nationalization crisis over fifty years later.
My use of archival material as a teaching tool is designed to be attractive to students interested in the history of the British empire in the Middle East as well as business history and the history of science and technology. Investigating company geology reports, for example, encourages students to rethink historical and political analysis by drawing connections between the political and historical forces through which large-scale infrastructures such as an oil industry have been shaped and the technical forces through which politics and history have been shaped.
Access to the company archive enables one to set up a learning environment that supports students in understanding and critically applying the methods of history and STS to a range of documents concerning BP’s activities in Iran. One of the primary assessments for this course is a source-based essay that would not be possible without access to the archive. Students learn to work with archival material presenting their analysis of the sources and relating them to the wider historical context as well as themes concerning a multitude of controversies over oil and property, royalties, production rates, oil labor, contractual legal disputes, and nationalization that proved central to working out the design and extended machinery of the company, locally and globally. Access to the BP archive makes possible a pedagogical approach that allows for original research in which the students engage in research-driven, active learning that entails exploration and developing arguments to challenge, reconfigure, or extend existing interpretations and debates about oil.
As a company technology for managing information, the BP archive has operated in some form since the 1920s. Documenting oil through a system of files and departments constituted a major component of the emergent multinational oil corporation understood as an extended financial, legal, and socio-technical machinery for keeping profits high and more democratic forms of control out. As with the company’s past, the operations of the BP archive are not without controversy today. In the context of a global campaign for divestment from fossil-fuel-based energy companies, the archive remains shrouded in a degree of secrecy and controversy. In 2015, Warwick University students called for the closure of the archive, reporting that they had failed to gain access to company files covering the years after 1976. The university’s vice chancellor also called on the company to enhance the archive’s accessibility to students. The students contend that the prohibited access coincided with a multi-billion-pound green research and development drive that was also taking place. Today, the issue remains unresolved and the post-1976 archives continue to be restricted from the public domain. Warwick’s student sustainability journal, Globus, is currently challenging the “university’s compliance in housing the archive” which it argues “condones the company’s neglect of the climate crisis.” Perhaps the archive’s position on such contentious issues will change as the world, including the major oil corporations, confronts climate catastrophe and is forced to transition from a world based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy.
[ Students protesting BP's support of cultural institutions in the United Kingdom. Photo by Dinendra Haria/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.]
 R.W. Ferrier, The History of the British Petroleum Company: The Developing Years, 1901-1932, Vol. 1. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); F.E. Smith, “John Cadman, Baron Cadman 1887-1941,” Obituary notices from the Fellows of the Royal Society 3, no. 10, Dec. 1941: 915-928.
 Mona Damluji, “The Oil City in Focus: The Cinematic Spaces of Abadan in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s Persian Story,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33, no. 1 (2013): 75-88.
 Katayoun Shafiee, Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).
 Bowker, Geoffrey, Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Physics at Schlumberger 1920-1940 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
 Ferrier (1982); J.H. Bamberg, The History of the British Petroleum Company: The Anglo-Iranian Years, 1928-1954, Vol. 2, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); J.H. Bamberg, British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge of Nationalism, Vol. 3. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
 Ervand Abrahamian, “The 1953 Coup in Iran,” Science and Society 65, no. 2 (2001): 182-215; Timothy Mitchell, “McJihad: Islam in the US Global Order,” Social Text 20, no.4 (2002): 1-18; Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso, 2011; Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom: Race, State, and the Business Myth-Making on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006).