Old Cold War Narratives & New Post-Colonial Futures

A Preface to the PosterArc

Thomas Hill’s extraordinary poster archive signifies a profound belief in the cultural durability and resonance of a genre typically associated with the ephemeral and the transient. Its accumulation over more than a quarter of a century has been an act of existential salvage as much as one of practical and committed effort against the odds. There is much in Hill’s reflexive yet determined approach to the act of collecting and travelling to collect – as integrally connected vocations – which recall both the 1988 novel Utz, and its author, the enigmatic English novelist and part-ethnographer, Bruce Chatwin (1940-89). Chatwin and his authorial invention of a gifted collector, speaks to a wider trajectory in which the visual artefact signifies a desire to share cultural histories, politics, neglected traditions and marginalised voices.

As apparent from even a casual glance at its website headings, the collection features posters across genres, subjects and themes with iconography and designs which transcend differences of language and culture and in fact speak to more profound continuities within modern and later modern human culture. Posters range from eclectic vintage silent film and theatre images, to posters valorising the Left as a trans-national social and political movement, to images of the Counter-Culture of the 1960s and 1970s and others which communicate the fears and trauma associated with the era of the Cold War.  The various health campaigns which feature in a range of posters, and, in particular, those which take as their subject, concern over the spread of AIDS, speak to a period in which this, and other issues, had become deeply politicised and stood in for a range of other pre-occupations around identity, exclusion and perceptions of otherness.   

The posters extend through the various countries of Northern and Southern Europe, in addition to the Middle East, Hong Kong, Cuba, the United States and many of the satellite states and territories of the former Eastern Bloc – including Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia.  More recently, Hill has turned attention to the African continent, itself a site of new post-colonial intervention and nascent re-definition. The backdrop to many of these posters are a range of new post-colonial histories; the relationship between the so-called ‘first world’ and the developing economies of Africa and South East Asia; concerns over resource depletion, over-population, diaspora and new geo-political and inter-ethnic conflicts.

Aside from sharing the exceptional range of images, one of the deeply felt aspirations behind this website is to encourage collecting, institutional interest and longer-term conservation of the posters themselves. These forms of practical support and engagement will help to safeguard both the archive’s content, as well as supporting onward acquisitions and enhancements to the collection.

This unique accumulation of posters is more than a collection, but its ambition speaks to the centrality of the visual throughout the modern, Cold War and post-colonial eras. This archival arc of images is not just about cultural pasts, but concerns radically re-envisioning what a shared future might look like. Its undertaking is, and remains, a radical and bold experiment; a statement of its creator’s deeply humanist convictions and a profound testament to future possibility.

Dr Grant Pooke FRSA

School of Arts

University of Kent, UK