Modernist Profiles: Emma West

Modernist Profiles meets the members of the Centre for Modernist Cultures to explore their research interests, the work they are doing, and exciting developments in the field of modernist studies. This month we spoke to Emma West.

To get us started, what’s your role at the University of Birmingham?

I’m a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English Literature – it’s a bit of a mouthful, but it essentially means that I spend a lot of my time researching and digging around in archives. 

You’re currently working on a very exciting postdoctoral project – what is your research about and what stage are you at with it?

Thanks for saying that the project is exciting: I think so too! It’s called Revolutionary Red Tape: How state bureaucracy shaped British modernism, and it seeks to explore how public servants and official committees helped to commission, disseminate and popularise modern British art, design, literature, architecture and performance.

The project – and the book that comes out of it – deals with some really big ideas and questions: What happened when the bureaucracy of the committee collided with the ‘blasting and bombardeering’ of the modernist artist or writer? How were modernism's radical textual and visual languages translated and refigured by civil servants who had to keep the tastes of the public and their superiors in mind? Did such schemes reach a wide audience, and, if so, how did those audiences respond?

I’m 18 months into the project, and have spent a lot of time so far doing archival research into my chosen case studies – the Arts League of Service, the General Post Office, the Empire Marketing Board, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, and the Temple of Peace [featured, right]. I’ve got thousands of photos and hundreds of thousands of words of notes, so I’m currently writing up some of my first case studies before delving back into the archive to research the second half of the project.

What are your other research interests?

I’m a bit of a magpie: I’m forever collecting interests in all aspects of British interwar art, literature and culture. The overriding theme that unites all of my work is an interest in how modernism reached the British public: in practice, this means that I’ve spent time researching things like interwar magazines, posters, fashion, costume design and architecture. My postgraduate research explored many of these areas, but more broadly it was interested in the interwar ‘Battle of the Brows’ and how cultural texts were defined, classified and put into hierarchies shaped by class and gender.

You’ve been involved in a range of additional activities, including organizing the successful Ways of Reading workshop in the Cadbury Research Library last year. In fact, archival work has become central to your working practice – what do you think researchers have to gain from working with archival collections?

I’ve been a huge fan of archival research ever since I spent 3 months in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress in 2012 as part of the AHRC International Placement Scheme. The whole trip was an absolute dream: every day an archivist would bring out a pile of twentieth century posters, from railway and Underground posters to one of the only copies of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, and I would just look at them. Spending so much time immersed in primary materials gave me such a rich understanding of how posters changed over the first few decades of the twentieth century, and opened up lots of new avenues for my future research.

Ever since, I’ve sought to spend as much time in archives as possible. My current project was inspired by a trip to the Postal Museum and Archive; it’s a long way away, but a future project on The Visual and Material Culture of British Fascism has also been inspired by a visit to an archive, namely the Bishopsgate Institute. It’s not just about discoveries, though: for me, archival collections pose lots of interesting questions around ways of reading and approaching material. Last month I organised a seminar around Reading Official Documents, and we also began exploring some of these questions at our magazines workshop at the Cadbury last year – I’m pleased to say that we’ll be continuing these conversations at a follow-up workshop in the next few months! 

Do you have any interesting projects or articles in the works at the moment?

I’m excited to be finishing up two articles arising from my postdoctoral project. The first is an article on interwar arts organisations’ efforts to bring art to the people, focusing around the activities of the Arts League of Service, which I am revising for Modernist Cultures. The second is a piece on the Empire Marketing Board’s ‘civilizing mission’ for a special issue of Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus cluster on ‘Modernist Institutions’, edited by Caroline Krzakowski and Megan Faragher. I can’t wait for this new research to get out into the world!