Hoang Tran, Director of Archives & Collections
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Archives is proud to present the summer 2023 internship project completed by Catherine Wan. Catherine is currently an undergraduate student pursuing a history degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For the summer internship project, she identified, digitized, cataloged, and researched student academic files. The objective of the project was to improve the discovery, access, and use of underused collections as well as uncover hidden stories and share them to the broader public. Since Catherine had a strong interest in researching Asian history, the project specifically focused on students of Asian descent. The project also provided Catherine the opportunity to curate an online resource that documented her findings (this website).
This internship project contributes to the Archives’ hidden histories initiative by identifying and researching untold stories from underused areas of PAFA’s collections.
Catherine Wan, Archives Intern
PAFA’s archives is the repository for the institutional records that document the activities of the museum and school since its founding in 1805. The school’s student records from 1917-1949 make up a large part of the archives’ collection (over 3,000 folders stored in 23 record cartons!). These records consisted of an individual file folder for each student and typically included applications, course grades, letters of recommendations, photographs, and other biographical information.
For my internship project, I focused on identifying Asian students who—amidst an era of worldwide political and social change, of war and development—chose to pursue their passion for art. The love and skill for the craft these students possess, fostered by their time at PAFA, allowed them to emerge as commercial artists, sculptors, and painters.
Over the course of my internship, I was tasked with digitizing and cataloging the records of these students. I have never worked in an archival setting before, but as a Chinese-American who has always lived near Philadelphia and loved art, the prospect of bringing these Asian students to light for the Archives was an amazing opportunity. These records, containing the minutiae of the students’ formative years, may otherwise have been forgotten. By providing online access to the student records, anyone with internet access can find and use the information freely.
This timeline presents enrollment dates for Asian students. Please note that the information in the timeline only reflects students that enrolled at PAFA between 1917 and 1949. Student enrollment information for students prior to 1917 are kept in ledgers that have not been indexed. As a result, it is not correct to state the first Asian student enrolled in 1919.
Demographic data for this section was compiled from student applications.
The labels being used/referred to in these graphs to talk about race, nationality, and gender are a product of their time, and not as nuanced as the terms used in the modern day. For this project, it was important to continue using the labels to not only preserve historical context but also highlight how demographic terms for race and ethnicity change over time. Moreover, some terms such as “yellow” and “brown” were used because they were specifically self-assigned by the students, and reflective of the times they lived in.
For this project, the term “Asian” encompasses people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Filipino, and Indian descent. For a more accurate representation of these students’ race, one can look instead to nationality, which is defined by the student’s place of birth as written in the student applications.
During the research process, the records revealed that a student’s place of birth did not automatically make the student ethnically “Asian”. There was one student, Susie Herring, that was born in China but is a white American. This instance reveals the complexity of race, ethnicity, and nationality. For the graphical analysis, it was decided to keep the data point. The project acknowledges the discrepancy but believes the information provides important historical context and would be useful for research purposes.
Out of the 3,318 student files available in the Archives, there were only 25 Asian students. This chart shows just how small that number is in comparison--just 0.75%!
Analyzing the data, it was apparent that a majority of the Chinese students on file only attended Chester Springs, PAFA’s summer school (operated from 1917-1951). Although the sample size was too small to make wide generalizations about all Chinese students from that period, one can draw an assumption that this group mainly attended Chester Springs due to a lack of finances. Students who enrolled in PAFA’s Chester Springs school during the summer were afforded housing and plein air training. Some Chinese students arriving at PAFA from 1910-1925, were coming from a post-war China which sought to strengthen itself by sending more students abroad, while other students from 1930-1940 were arriving amidst China’s Civil War. These Chinese international students, alongside the ones born in America, likely took great pains to travel, save money for their family, and surmount discrimination in the country– all during times when the Chinese economy was weak and sinophobic sentiments ran high. Attending Chester Springs seemed to be the best way to satisfy artistic interest, while remaining financially pragmatic.
My supervisor Hoang Tran also mentioned how students, particularly male students, would enroll in Chester Springs for financial reasons. This small review into Asian students does support the claims that financially disadvantaged male students would commonly continue their schooling after the regular semester during the summer at Chester Springs. While at Chester Springs, the students, typically men of color, completed courses, worked manual labor, and received credits alongside relatively cheap housing, as an alternative to finding housing elsewhere. More than half of the Asian students enrolled in courses at PAFA, Chester Springs, or both, and of that group, a majority were men.
Mary H. Liang
Monico C. Calma
This world map provides the geolocation of the place of birth for the Asian students that enrolled at PAFA. Zoom out to see the map of the world to view all locations. Click on markers to see more details of the city/town.