History of the Collection

The University of Westminster’s Chinese Poster Collection is a unique archival collection of  some 800 posters spanning the 1950s to the 1980s. Most of the Collection dates from the 1960s to the 1970s, making it an important resource for study of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a period of China’s modern history commonly characterised as  the ‘ten dark years of chaos’ but given increasing critical attention research, documentary films and important museum collections. The collection also has a range of memorabilia from the same period, such as puzzles and toys, badges, handkerchiefs and ration coupons, tickets and receipts, postcard and print sets, picture books (lianhuanhua), paper cuts and a small but valuable library of books on Chinese art of the period.

The Collection was founded in 1977 by the writer and journalist John Gittings, then Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL). It was initially called the China Visual Arts Project, to provide a teaching and learning resource on the Mao era. Over the years it grew, with contributions from colleagues, students and friends who studied and travelled in China during the 1960s and 1970s. More recently the Collection has acquired a number of posters from the 1950s. John Gittings and Anna Merton compiled the first hard copy catalogue, and  Katie Hill, appointed as curator in 2000, set up the Collection’s first website (http://home.wmin.ac.uk/china_posters/).

The Collection is the largest public collection of its kind in Europe and the US and its historical significance and contents attract visitors from the EU, US and China, including film-makers, curators and collectors as well as academics and PhD students of visual culture and film studies, modern history, politics and international relations, and museums and collections.

A first exhibition of the Collection’s posters and woodblock prints was held in 1979 in the Regent Street building of the Polytechnic of Central London, entitled 'Popular Political Culture in China'. A larger exhibition—‘Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution’—funded by the Luce Foundation and curated by Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Harriet Evans followed in 1999 at Indiana University and Ohio State University (See http://kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu/Exhibitions/picturingPowerExhibit.html and http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/1999/08/24/25820.html).  In 2004, Katie Hill curated an AHRC-funded exhibition ‘The Political Body - Posters from the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s and 1970s’, which examined the relationship between gender and representation of the body between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. The exhibition was first shown at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and travelled to several other venues.

In 2010, Harriet Evans and Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, funded by the Australian Research Council, curated 'China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art', at the University Art Gallery, University of Sydney, then at RMIT, Melbourne. The exhibition explored the relationship between Cultural Revolution poster art and contemporary art work that engages in a dialogue with the period. The most recent exhibition was Poster Power: Images from Mao's China, Then and Now', curated by Harriet Evans and held at the University of Westminster. Poster Power juxtaposed the Collection's posters alongside contemporary visual and material culture from China and elsewhere, in order to reflect on the legacy of the Mao era in China as well as the West.

The Collection has been the focus of academic attention, conference papers and documentary film. Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald co-edited an important collection of essays following the 1999 exhibition (Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999). Two films based on the Collection were made in 2006 by the independent documentary film makers Ai Xiaoming and Hu Jie, titled ‘Painting for the Revolution: Peasant Paintings from Huxian’ and ‘Red Art’. The British Academy funded a symposium on the Collection —‘Face and Place: Visibility and Invisibility in Chinese Propaganda Posters’— in 2007.

In 2013, the AHRC-funded project ‘Translating China’, organised by the University of Westminster's Anne Witchard, held a series of conferences focusing on the changing conceptions of China and Chineseness in Britain, and provided financial support for ongoing digitizing and cataloguing work on the Poster Collection. The Collection has contributed to highly successful outreach activities with secondary and primary schools in the UK.