This is the first post in a new ‘From the Archives’ series, which will shine a spotlight on a lesser-known part of the M+ Collections: the M+ Collection Archives. Below, with the help of M+ staff members Kevin Forkan, Archivist, and Shirley Surya, Associate Curator, Design and Architecture, you’ll get a brief introduction to the M+ Collection Archives—what they are, what is in them, and how they have become an important part of the collection.
What are the M+ Collection Archives?
Kevin: What we call the ‘M+ Collection Archives’ is the archival material that’s been acquired by M+ since 2013 and ongoing. There are currently more than forty separate collections, or ‘fonds’, of archival material in the archives. Some fonds are small, consisting of only a few drawings or documents, while some are quite large, with several thousand documents, drawings and photographs. Overall, the M+ Collection Archives currently contains around ten to twelve thousand individual physical items.
Shirley: The M+ Collections Archives are actually part of the greater M+ Collections, comprising the M+ Collection, the M+ Sigg Collection, and the M+ Collection Archives. They’re used for both research, publications, and exhibitions. Although architecture archival materials present a challenge to display compared to visual art works, because they also require the audience to read and study, we hope to devise inventive and engaging ways of displaying such materials in upcoming exhibitions.
Kevin: The Collection Archives will also be available to the public to view and consult for free in the M+ Study Centre, which will be part of the completed M+ building.
What’s the difference between objects in the Collection Archives and other objects in the M+ Collections?
Kevin: Our first principle is equality of collections, which means that we recognise no conceptual difference between an archival item and an artwork. We’re a museum with three main collecting areas—visual art, moving image, and design and architecture—and especially in the latter area, much of the collection consists of archival material. We can’t collect the buildings, so we collect the plans!
Having said that, archives do have some different requirements, particularly around cataloguing, compared to traditional museum objects. Like other museums that collect archives, as opposed to purely archival institutions, we have had to put a lot of thought into how we define whether an object is archival or not. When deciding what goes into the M+ Collection and what goes into the M+ Collection Archives, we take two main factors into account. Firstly, if something is related to the process of creation rather than a final work, it’s viewed as archival—for example, design drawings, architectural drawings, sketches for tapestries, correspondence and documents revealing the thinking behind artworks, design objects, or buildings, things like that. The second criterion is if something is acquired as part of a whole. For example, if we have ten drawings relating to a design object or building, those drawings must be kept together, because individual archival items usually make no sense outside of the context of their collections.
What does an archivist do?
Kevin: We do three main things: we appraise, we preserve, and we make available. Appraisal means selecting what should be preserved as archives and what should not. Preserving means looking after archives and ensuring their physical and intellectual integrity. It obviously involves stopping them from deteriorating, but also ensuring that archival fonds are not split up or mixed with other collections.
In terms of making available, it means a couple of things. Firstly, there’s cataloguing—there’s no point in having a building full of archives if nobody knows what’s in them! We follow international cataloguing standards for archives that have built up over years. And of course, it also means making archives physically and digitally available, through exhibitions and the website but also in the future M+ Study Centre.
What is currently in the M+ Collection Archives?
Kevin: We have around forty-five separate fonds of archival materials, mainly design and architecture-related. When it comes to the three main pillars of M+—visual art, design and architecture, and moving image—there are currently a lot more archives for design and architecture than for the others, although that will change in the near future. So right now, the archives contain thousands of photographs, architectural drawings, design drawings, sketches, photographs of prototypes, and other documents. A lot of it focuses on Hong Kong architecture, which I think is important.
How did the Design and Architecture team start collecting archives?
Shirley: We actually didn’t set out to collect archives as a separate category. Everything was premised on building the collection. When you’re collecting architecture, you’re never really collecting the final work itself; as in, you don’t necessarily collect the actual building (though there are certainly cases when we are able to acquire architectural fragments from a building). But you might collect materials documenting the design process of the building such as models, sketches and drawings. The majority of architectural materials we acquire largely represent how a building is produced, as well as mediated or consumed—especially when we also acquire a poster or photograph of the building.
As Kevin mentioned, a lot of the existing archives focus on Hong Kong architecture. As a Hong Kong-based institution, it’s only right for us to acquire materials and works documenting key architectural production in Hong Kong, especially since the 1950s. The University of Hong Kong Department of Architecture opened in 1950, so we wanted to primarily focus on tracking the projects that came out of that generation, as well as others working during the same time such as those by the Public Works Department. The Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA) did an oral history documentation in book form, which was our key resource in tracking these architects. Through HKIA, we were connected to pretty much all the key firms that shaped Hong Kong’s architecture and urbanism since the 1950s.
We approached the firms directly and asked, what do you have in terms of documentation? At first most of them responded with, ‘old stuff? We don’t have old stuff!’ We actually forced them to dig up old papers and materials to see what they could find. It’s an important two-way process because the firms, architects or their families, have to trust us with these things, as they can be considered of great personal significance. The Hong Kong architecture archive is almost all acquired by donation.
The collecting process was quite serendipitous in that we couldn’t control what we found. If we knew that something is the only thing available, we just took it. It’s led to us having, for example, untitled drawings and photographs that are not yet identified. Hopefully, in the future, researchers can access the archives and decipher what they actually are.
What was the first object in the Collection Archives?
Shirley: The very first objects to enter the Collection Archives were the six drawings of Imperial Hotel in Tokyo from around 1920 by Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re very detailed drawings on tracing paper, of things like the stone carving for a stairwell. They show Wright’s system-ornamental approach to designing everything down to the smallest details. The second set of objects that entered the Collection Archives were part of the Hong Kong architecture collections.
Do you have any favourite group of materials in the Collection Archives?
Kevin: I do! My favourite is the Architects Team 3 collection, acquired by Shirley, which was an architectural firm based in Singapore and Malaysia. It consists of materials documenting the works of Architects Team 3, preceded by Malayan Architects Co-partnership, both co-founded by Penang-based Lim Chong Keat from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. I saw Lim speak at the University of Hong Kong; he’s a wonderful speaker and seems to be a very visionary and thoughtful architect.
It’s a collection of fragments; it’s not a full narrative or chronological story of everything they built, but it shows the nature of archives that don’t always come together complete or organised. We acquire what we can find, and make sense of it as it enters the collection. It also exemplifies the visual nature of the archival collection we hold, with many sketches, drawings, and photographs.
Having traveled myself through Southeast Asia and through Singapore, it’s great seeing the designs and processes behind the buildings that basically revolutionised Singapore in the 1960s. I think it’s a really fascinating collection; I hope that people will see it in the upcoming exhibition In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections, and that it will become a good research resource in the future.
Shirley: I agree with Kevin about the Architects Team 3 archive. It was a fortuitous discovery— stumbling upon the materials in boxes left unattended at the office no longer headed by the original directors of the firm—but also a significant one as the materials document the firm’s role in designing the buildings that represented the post-colonial economic and political independence of Singapore and Malaysia.
It’s hard to say what a ‘favourite’ archive is, but there are some archives we’re especially grateful to have acquired. For example, the materials of Taiwan’s pioneering architect, Wang Dahong; especially since they consist of his essays, sketchbooks, and photographs.
I’m also glad to have acquired the archive of another Taiwanese architect—so far the only female architect in the Collection—Wang Chiu-Hwa. She’s very much respected in Taiwan as the ‘mother of libraries’, but her work as a Chinese female architect practicing in New York with Percival Goodman from the 1950s to the 1980s has been underrepresented regionally and globally.
As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). This interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.