A coloured pencil and ink architectural sketch on paper of a house seen diagonally from above, rendered in bright pink and yellow.

An Introduction to the M+ Collection Archives

This is the first post in a new ‘From the Archives’ blog 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?

An old, large piece of paper with a sketch of a neon sign on it is lying in between large sheets of protective paper in an opened drawer.

A neon sign sketch from the M+ Collection Archives. Nam Wah Neon Co. (established Hong Kong, 1953), Design sketch, neon sign for Watson's Feeds, [1950s–circa 1963], paint, ink and pencil on paper, M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical Mfy, Ltd., 2015.

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?

Crayon and ink architectural sketch on paper of a collection of buildings on a green hillop. The central, large building is long and flat, with large windows covering the side of the building facing us.

Architect: Eric Lye (Hong Kong, born Malaysia. 1934–2003), Elevation, competition proposal for Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 1987, crayon and ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Leung, Hing-yee Joan

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?

A man wearing white gloves is lifting a piece of protective cardboard to look at the archival architectural sketch inside a drawer.

Kevin Forkan, Archivist at M+, working in the M+ archival storage facility

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?

Sepia-toned photograph of the area on top of the Peak in Hong Kong in the 1960s, before the Peak Tower had been built. A sketch of the Peak Tower has been added to the photograph in black marker.

Architectural Firm: W.N. Chung Chartered Architect (established Hong Kong, 1964), Site study photographs, Peak Tower, the upper terminal of the Peak Tramway (1967–1972), Hong Kong [1967–1969], gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Chung Wah Nan Architects Limited, 2014. © Chung Wah Nan Architects Limited

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?

Architectural sketch in ink and tape on cardboard, depicting a site plan of an outdoor public space with sections for trees, walkways, water features, and spots for statues.

Architectural Firm: W. Szeto & Partners (established Hong Kong, 1948–1998); Architect: Alan Fitch (British, 1921–1986), Site plan, Statue Square (1965–1966), Hong Kong, 1966, ink and tape on card. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Alan Fitch, 2014 © All rights reserved

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?

Pencil and ink drawing on transparent paper showing details of an architectural plan.

Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959), Drawing, stonework (possibly a stair), Imperial Hotel (1916–1923), Tokyo, Japan, [circa 1918], pencil and ink on transparent paper. M+, Hong Kong. © 2018, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

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.

As well as the earliest collected object, Frank Lloyd Wright also has the honour of having the oldest object in terms of age in the Collection Archives: a Wasmuth Portfolio drawing.

Do you have any favourite group of materials in the Collection Archives?

Photograph of a white mosque in a park-like area with a round, wavy roof with eight minarets.

Architectural Firm: Malayan Architects Co-Partnership (established Singapore, 1961); Publisher: Great Wall Photographers, Postcard, Seremban State Mosque (1962–1967), Seremban, Malaysia, [circa 1967], print on card. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015

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.

Photograph of an architectural rendering of a long building with a flat roof in a park-like area with people walking around it.

Wang Dahong / 王大閎 (Taiwanese, born Beijing,1917), Photographs, exterior rendering, competition submission for the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, [circa 1961], gelatin silver prints. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Family of Wang Dahong, 2015. © Wang Dahong / 王大閎

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.

Photograph of a building framed by a dark archway. The building is library with a flat roof on top of a podium with a staircase leading up to it.

Architect: Wang Chiu-Hwa (Taiwanese, born Beijing, 1925); Architectural Firm: J. J. Pan and Partners, Photograph, exterior elevation, University Library (1983–1985), Chung Yuan Christian University, Chung Li, Taiwan, [circa 1985], chromogenic colour print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Chiu-Hwa Wang, 2017. © Courtesy of Wang Chiu-Hwa

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.

Monochrome photograph of a building on a street with rows of small, round windows on the facade.

Architect: Wang Chiu-Hwa (Taiwanese, born Beijing, 1925); Architect: Percival Goodman (American, 1904–1989), Photograph, exterior perspective, Fifth Avenue Synagogue (1956–1959), New York, USA 1959, gelatin silver print. © Courtesy of Wang Chiu-Hwa

You will be able to see some examples from the Collection Archives in the upcoming exhibition In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections. Contact us here if you have any questions about them.

The above interview has been edited for clarity.


Image at top of post: Architectural Firm: Palmer & Turner (P&T Group) / 巴馬丹拿集團 (established Hong Kong, 1868); Architect: Remo Riva (Hong Kong, born Switzerland, 1946), Axonometric drawing, 42 Sassoon Road Houses (1977–1979), Hong Kong, 1976, coloured pencil and ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Remo Riva, 2013 © Remo Riva

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