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From Revolution to Commie Kitsch: (Re)-presenting China in Contemporary British Museums through the Visual Culture of the Cultural Revolution

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posted on 27.07.2010, 10:18 by Amy Jane Barnes
To date, the study of communist visual culture in the museum environment has been limited. While interest in revolutionary art continues to develop thanks to its twenty-first century appropriation and ‘kitschification’ in Western contexts, communist art remains problematic. Taking Saidian discourse as a theoretical starting point, this thesis explores the collection, interpretation and display of the visual culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in contemporary British museums. It explores the image of China in the popular consciousness and looks for intersections between the contemporary political Sino-British relationship and interpretive approaches to this material. The historiographical survey analyses contemporary primary sources to reveal images of the Cultural Revolution during three periods which correspond with mind shifts in the British response to China. Interviews with key members of curatorial staff situate the thesis in contemporary practice. The thesis is divided into three sections. The first, the ‘pre-historical’ context to the main body of the thesis establishes a methodological approach, theoretical grounding and surveys the Sino-British relationship from the Enlightenment to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Section 2 looks at the contemporary British response to the Cultural Revolution and how these visions of China were translated into exhibitionary practice. Section 3 explores the collections and practice of three case studies. It examines the different and diverse reasons for the establishment of these collections and how they have interpreted (as art, artefact or document). The thesis concludes with the argument that museums and collecting institutions have a key role to play in the difficult debate which envelopes the West’s historical response to communism and the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, in the light of challenges to the grand narrative.



Knell, Simon; Pearce, Susan

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University of Leicester

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