The Chinese Visual Arts Project: Graduate work in records and archives

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Freja Howat, a BA Visual Culture graduate, reflects on her recent employment in the digital preservation of a university collection of Chinese Visual Arts.

Working over a period of five months in 2018-19, I joined the Records and Archives team at the University of Westminster to help implement the digitisation and digital preservation of its collections. Founded as the UK’s first polytechnic institution, the University has collections spanning over 170 years. My role was, needless to say, varied.

When I told people that I worked in an archive, most people imagined me sat among a load of boxes in a dark, dusty strongroom. This was partly true, but popular visions of archives are based on myths that do not do service to the active labour that goes into providing access to collections via outreach and digitisation. Archives are not static repositories – the work around the University’s Chinese Visual Arts Project exemplifies this point.

Founded in 1977 by the writer and journalist John Gittings, then Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the Polytechnic of Central London (predecessor to the University of Westminster), the collection comprises a staggering 843 posters acquired from Hong Kong and mainland China, dating from the 1940s to the 1980s, alongside a wealth of books, objects and ephemera. The collection was used and built upon as a teaching aid for the University’s classes in Chinese language and politics and is still used today for similar purposes by Senior Archivist Anna McNally for a range of courses at Westminster engaging with visual and material cultures. I worked with Anna to deliver outreach sessions designed to offer students a deeper understanding of the ways in which archives are constructed, and how collections are attributed with meaning and value.

Figure 1: Item CPC/1/E/39 – Unknown Artist, Smash the old world & build a new one, 1967, 270mm x 376mm, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

These sessions often engaged with the propaganda posters, which encompass a wide range of styles, responding to the frequent changes in the political climate. Created in the red and black graphic woodblock style that has become so synonymous with the Cultural Revolution, posters such as “Smash the old world and build a new one” (1967) [Fig. 1] portray the elimination of China’s old traditions under the Communist regime. By the mid-1970s, these posters begin to shift in style. More posters tend to promote healthcare, education and industry such as “Put birth control into practice for the revolution” (1974) [Fig. 2], a message that takes on new significance following China’s one child policy (1979-2015). This poster also struck me as particularly relevant to today’s political climate as it features Uighur Muslims, an oppressed minority currently facing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang.

Figure 2: Item CPC/1/H/8 – Unknown Artist, Put birth control into practice for the revolution, 1974, 776mm x 542mm, Records and Archives, University of Westminster.

Accompanying these posters are a number of propagandist toys such as a puzzle cube of Vietnamese children planting a bomb for American soldiers [Fig. 3] and a pair of dolls that depict the Red Guards, a mass paramilitary social movement mobilised and guided by Mao in 1966 and 1967, during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution [Fig. 4]. There are also objects that detail the everyday, such as bus tickets and receipts; pins featuring Mao; matchbooks depicting Chinese monuments and lingerie [Fig. 5]. These materials have received less interest than the posters, yet resonated with me as I felt they had just as much to say about the culture and politics of China during this period, as well as Westminster as an institution.


Figure 3: Puzzle cube, c.1970, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

Whilst considering the transformation of political narratives overtime, students also reflected on the wider context by which the collection was formed and how it portrayed China through a particular Western paradigm. It is for this reason I became involved with digitising this aspect of the collection; to increase the visibility of the collection as a whole, which when seen in its wider context as a teaching aid also raises questions about Westminster. It is a legacy that continues to grow and evolve in the ways it is catalogued, distributed and engaged with.

Figure 4: Red Guards, c.1967, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

I set to work photographing these objects and also played around with 3D modelling (a work in progress). Whilst this has its own issues – not everyone has access to a machine that is powerful enough to view 3D models – we thought it could be an interesting way for researchers overseas to get an idea of the materiality of an object [Fig. 6]. Alternative, low tech solutions also led me to think about .gif making; accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. In addition to this, Westminster has recently implemented a new online catalogue which enables users the choice between English and Chinese. Whilst this is of course open to continuous improvement, it is a positive development that will fundamentally alter the ways in which audiences engage with the collection and how it is managed.

Figure 5: Bra, c.1966-1976, Records and Archives, University of Westminster

By considering the ways which this collection has been acquired and the channels by which it continues to be distributed, audiences are offered a newer context for viewing the collection. It allows us to think critically about the appropriation of the word ‘archive’, about differences between digital and physical objects, and also about the accessibility of material and the impacts of digitisation on non-European collections that have been attributed Westernised standards of archival value.

Figure 6: Work in progress 3D Model of Red Guard Doll, Records and Archives, University of Westminster.

Read Senior Archivist Anna McNally’s article here.

For personal insights and reflections on the collection, read Westminster alumni Cassie Lin’s work here.

Browse the catalogue here.

All images courtesy of University of Westminster Archive.

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