My interest in archives developed during a course trip last November when I visited Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire with AGMS classmates. I was attracted by the archive collection of the museum and the archivist’s presentation gave me a fascinating snapshot of archive work. To continue exploring this initial interest in archives, I was enthused to apply for an archivist assistant placement at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA).
The CFCCA began in 1986 when Chinese immigrant artists called for a platform to develop their identity in Manchester. It’s aims have shifted during the past 30 years in response to a changing global dynamic. In 2014, the role of the CFCCA was defined as ‘leading the UK in exploring the Chinese Century through contemporary art’, indicating that this international agency will serve future audiences in a broader realm. In its 30th anniversary year in 2016, and in recognition of its history, the CFCCA received £37,400 from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to launch an archive and library redevelopment project. This project aimed to make accessible the CFCCA archive and library, which was seen as a milestone in terms of both looking back, and considering the future.
The overarching objectives of my placement were to process material in order to create full paper records and then digitise the record into an online database. Registering and cataloguing skills were needed to set the groundwork. My placement was focused on all material from 1986 up to the present, which is comprehensive, with varied subjects ranging from exhibitions and conference reports, to data on a large number of artists, as well as marketing strategies and estate records. In addition, the archival material consists of ephemera, letters, slides, film negatives and original publicity materials such as leaflets, photographs, rare journals and catalogues and newspaper cuttings. This placement concerned registering, cataloguing and online access through digitisation.
As a native Chinese speaker, I could easily access the Chinese language archival materials, but by contrast, as a novice at this work, my lack of archival knowledge left me with a skill gap, which required a great effort to bridge. I set up the scaffolding—a learning framework in order to successfully carry out the practical archivist assistant job. By taking part in museum talks, attending professional skill training and continuing to write a self-assessment note, I gained a better understanding of the concept and principle of archive management and basic archival skills, especially in understanding provenance, finds and ordering the archives.
It was an exciting experience to work on the CFCCA’s archive and library redevelopment project. I witnessed the whole procedure of the project, and I learned and worked from the initial phase of the project and contributed to its completion, which brought a sense of accomplishment. It was an experience – seeking knowledge both vertically and horizontally – with an awareness that the individual and the art institution should always work towards future development on both sides. This work placement gave me a hands-on experience to follow my initial interests and I am now more attracted by those mysterious, historic and complex archives. I also took over the responsibility to organize the Mandarin Corner in CFCCA to teach Chinese. Working as a member of the wonderful CFCCA team is a memorable experience.