Contested colonial histories at the National Maritime Museum

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BA Visual Culture student, Annie Jones, reflects on the challenges to ethical representation at play in the National Maritime Museum.

In October 2019, undergraduate students on the second year module, Museums, Material Culture and Representation, alongside MA Curating Collections and Heritage students, led by Dr Claire Wintle, journeyed to Greenwich to explore the National Maritime Museum.

We started the day by venturing through the gallery, Traders: The East India Company and Asia. Its focus was how the East India Company brought exciting new spices to Britain, how the textiles it imported shaped fashions and fuelled demand, and how tea was transformed from an expensive luxury to a national pastime. Grand portraits
of British traders such as James Lancaster, who commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601, dominated the front half of the gallery.

The museum communicated a noticeable sense of British colonial pride with period quotes on the wall declaring “profit and power must go together”, describing the company as “the greatest corporation in the world” and observing, “whosever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world”. A box of the spicesnacquired during the period, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon,  were available for us visitors of the gallery to smell and to appreciate.

Towards the back of the gallery the museum’s tone shifted from pride to shame, noting the exploitation, conflict and drug wars that occurred due to British trade and the company’s subsequent fall in the 1850s. Instead of magnificent conquerors, here the British were described by contemporary voices as “evil foreigners” who tempted “fools to destroy themselves [with opium] merely in order to reap a profit.” Despite the museum’s critique of the company, I found the gallery had an overpowering British imperialist voice as a whole, with the objects on display used as tools to frame history in favour of the British. The emphasis was on boasting about what the company had contributed to British society, outweighing their acknowledgement of the terrible consequences for people of China and India.

Students listening to Dr Claire Warrior at the National Maritime Museum.

Next we had a tour of the new Pacific Encounters gallery lead by Dr. Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Officer. As we walked into the gallery we were introduced to Adi Yeta, a Fijian drua (sailing boat) built in 2014-15 by a team of Fijian men and women, along with taonga (treasures) displayed in a bookcase created by Ngati Rangiiwaho, a hapu (sub-tribe) of Ngai Tamanuhiri (a tribe) in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Dr Warrior was incredibly passionate about the museums’ continuing effort to collaborate with the pacific people in telling theirs and their ancestor’s stories in this traditionally exclusive setting, which is a shift I was delighted to see after viewing the Traders gallery. Words such such as ‘colonisation’ and ‘exploitation’ were not shied away from on these walls. It was acknowledged on a text panel that “some people question whether they [Pacific objects in European museums] belong there or if they should be returned.”

Efforts to show the dark, destructive side of Captain Cook’s voyages were made, noting that for many people of the Pacific, he represents the negative legacy of encounter. Many Pacific artists used his portrait to highlight the injustices that came in his wake, presenting him as an invader an murderer, such as one piece by Reg Mombassa titled Jim Cook Mugshot. To see the work of Pacific artists and tribe peoples’ interpretation of the colonisation of their ancestors on these walls was enlightening and a notable positive change in the Maritime Museum’s ethics.

Our final stop of the day was at the Polar Worlds gallery. This was my first time viewing the Arctic in a museum setting and I learned a lot as a result, most notably that over 40 different groups of people live there, sharing close connection to their environment and living off its resources. A video at the beginning, with Sammy Kogvik from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, provided a great insight into what daily life is like in the Arctic. Contemporary Inuit art was on show along with music by Tanya Tagaq, an avant-garde composer from Canada’s Arctic which was produced especially for the gallery and was available to listen to. The gallery was incredibly interactive and accessible to children, with many touchscreen games to help one’s understanding of the Arctic, its environment and people.

Altogether, it was an extremely enjoyable, educational and insightful trip. Dr. Claire Warrior’s inside knowledge of the exhibits and her transparency about the way the museum is handling contentious colonial objects and their histories today made me hopeful for the ongoing reframing of imperial histories at The National Maritime Museum.

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.

Breaking through: An academic award and a confidence boost

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Ella Winning, BA Visual Culture final year student, on winning a Breakthrough award for academic performance.

 Fig. 1 Award winners and donors at the 2018 ceremony

I was very honoured to be the recipient of the Khadija Saye Visual Culture Breakthrough Award for 2017/18, for my performance in the second year of my BA Visual Culture degree. I hadn’t anticipated receiving this award – I didn’t even know of its existence – and I was (and still am) incredibly surprised. I am extremely grateful to my award’s donor, Andrew Davidson, who created and named the prize after the late Khadija Saye.

Saye was a 24-year-old artist based in London, whose work explored her sense of self, as well as common spirituality beyond religion. Her work was being shown in the 2017 Venice Biennale when her life was taken, alongside her mother’s, on the 20th floor of Grenfell tower on 14 June 2017. For someone so young, she showed masses of potential, and had started to receive the recognition for her talent she deserved in the days leading up to her tragic death.

As they were both involved in a mentoring scheme called Early Risers, Saye and Andrew met on a handful of occasions. Andrew was struck by the artist’s potential. He said, “I think one day she would have won the Turner Prize, or probably invented something better.”[1] To Andrew, the award is a “small way of honouring her memory and making some future creative paths to fulfilling careers a little smoother.”[2]

Alongside Andrew, many people have been inspirational for me throughout my studies, including my tutors and everyone at ONCA Gallery, where I carried out my Behind the Scenes  placement. They have helped me with my work and provided valuable insight into visual culture practice. Receiving this award has given me a big confidence boost in my academic abilities and has encouraged me to pursue further study through a Masters next year.

The university-wide awards celebration ceremony took place on 4 December 2018, and brought together over 150 beneficiaries, donors, staff and other guests to celebrate the achievements of students from across the whole of the university through Breakthrough awards, scholarships, governors’ prizes as well as others. I was struck by the amazing work of those around me, including students focusing their work to aid vulnerable people, setting up valuable organisations, alongside the sheer amount of hard work inside and outside of studies.

While I unfortunately didn’t get to meet Andrew at the ceremony, we recently met over a coffee. A member of the Visual Culture alumni here at University of Brighton, Andrew is an Education and Communications Consultant. I loved hearing about his very interesting work, and his thoughts on course related topics that he is knowledgeable and passionate about. He believes strongly in supporting the university, and paving the way for students to kick start their careers. Hearing about his amazing work within the industry was incredibly valuable, especially in terms of understanding practical careers in art history to help others.

With the prize money, I have donated some to ONCA in the hope that it will help fund some of their fantastic work! With the rest I will save to take my mum on a well-deserved holiday. Thank you so much, Andrew, for your generosity and foresight in recognising and developing the potential of newcomers to the creative arts.

[1] Andrew Davidson, qted in Sarah Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish” University of Brighton Alumni Association, WordPress, 25 Sep, 2017.

[2] Davidson, qted in Grant, “Encouraging talent to flourish”