International exhibitions have been an object of research in very diverse disciplinary fields. This conference is meant to serve as an opportunity to support exchanges of expertise and encourage discussions between researchers and practitioners whose work centres on elements of British culture and the history of international exhibitions.
The range of this call for proposals is intentionally as welcoming as possible, inviting a diverse range of material and disciplinary approaches: history of art, of architecture, of graphics, of visual culture, of gender, social and regional studies. The relation between the national question (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland) within the United Kingdom itself and displays and representations of the United Kingdom in exhibitions is also worth considering. Participants may come from humanities and social sciences, from basic and applied research, and be affiliated with academic, heritage-based, or business-based organisations.
The 2010 Shanghai Universal Exhibition ended, unsurprisingly, on a massive success in terms of visitor figures. Members of the international community and global companies rushed from all corners to feature in good position in the environment of this ephemeral showcase put together to quench the curiosity of an audience eager to consume and discover the world.
In these early years of the 21st century, though, the participation of sovereign countries to such an event prompts more than ever all sorts of questions. The increasing number of available media and the growing circulation of information across the world may be a challenge for both state and entrepreneurial entities in their will to create and communicate a consistent narrative. Meanwhile, the public is more and more able to form an autonomous opinion on various questions. Might this enormous institutional investment, both physical and intellectual, be driven by precisely the one-of-a-kind nature of this type of gathering?
In 2010, Greek-British architect Katerina Dionysopoulou explained about the UK building she had contributed to for the Shanghai Exhibition: ‘The biggest challenge of the project was to create a pavilion that the government would be happy to use as a platform to communicate how amazing the UK is without making it a straightforward advertisement. At the same time, we were trying to build an object that had never been built.’
This emphasises several themes this conference is interested in: communication and political appropriation of the event, display and representation of a country throughout the event, and a consideration of technical and technological innovation.
In a context of international competition and flamboyance, with a public both international and local, it is inevitable that the communication issue should arise: who is a national representation for? The other, the foreigner, the world? Or for oneself, one’s own nationals?
More broadly, there is the question of the motivation: why does one wish to take part in the UK representation in international exhibitions? And perhaps, on the contrary, why would one shun the opportunity?
These questions on institutional motivations for displays and representations find their counterpart in questions on individual motivation for taking part in this exceptional communication setting that international exhibitions have been: A thirst for knowledge? Curiosity? A desire to experience the event and subsequently to share the experience? Ultimately what are the results from the point of view of the public?
National representation, technology, and relation to history: technical questions are also inevitable. Historically, exhibitions are the place to become familiar with progress and modernity. However, in the days of globalisation and instant communication, the display of innovation and technical or technological ‘revolution’ may seem less in the spotlight than it used to be several decades ago. Proposals may explore the way relations between education and entertainment of visitors as well as promotion and teaching have been negotiated in presentations of the UK.
Considering the UK’s significant colonial history, proposals may reflect on the relations between the UK and colonial power in terms of display and representation in exhibitions. They could thus look at issues of colonial action, and then decolonisation and the post-colonial era: Why? How? To what ends?
Proposals may be diachronic, to focus on short or long term trends, or synchronic, focussing on case studies illustrating wider concepts or trends particularly significant in the intellectual context of exhibitions and beyond in selected disciplinary fields.
Comparative approaches are welcome, especially to emphasize specificities – or shared features – which have characterised UK presentations in exhibitions.
The conference organizing committee plans to produce a publication presenting a selection of contributions in a cohesive editorial project. As such, proposals drawing on original, unpublished research are particularly welcome.
Organizing committee: Guillaume Evrard, Gabriel Gee, Sophie Orlando, Eve Roy.
Scientific committee: Mr Paul Greenhalgh, Ms Sabine Wieber, Mr Guillaume Evrard, Miss Eve Roy.
Guillaume Evrard, History of Art, University of Edinburgh
Of bricks and concrete: building an image of the UK in 1878 Paris
Alexandra Peat, Franklin College, Switzerland
Imperial Stocktaking:‘ the Literary Response to the 1924 British Empire Exhibition
The 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley encapsulates a particularly significant moment in British imperial history for it took place at a time when the empire was simultaneously at its height and on the verge of collapse. The imperial bravado that characterised the official rhetoric of the Wembley exhibition masked the growing uncertainty of the imperial project; while the Official Guide insisted on a myth of imperial unity, describing a homogenous Empire with “one soul,” heightening public concerns about the purpose of empire coupled with increasing unrest in the colonies mean that, as Osbert Sitwell writing in Vogue put it, the public “might have been pardoned for wondering which would be finished first—the Empire or the Exhibition. For a world on the brink of a historical shift, the Wembley exhibition provided what contemporary political scientist Walter Zimmern termed, “a convenient occasion for a process of imperial stocktaking.”
This paper considers such a process of “imperial stocktaking” by analyzing the relationship between the 1924 British Empire Exhibition and the modernist texts devoted to discussing it with use of the related metaphors of the frame and the network. I Pay particular attention to such essays as Virginia Woolf’s “Thunder at Wembley,” E. M. Forster’s “The Birth of an Empire,” and Karel Capek’s “The Biggest Samples Fair.” If the Wembley exhibition was an imperial attempt to frame the world, then these essays operate as counter-narratives that both expose the ethical problems inherent in the imperial framework and prompt us to view the exhibition from new perspectives. Similarly, while the official Wembley exhibition aimed to be the static central hub in a fixed imperial system, the proliferating accounts of the exhibition suggest the possibility of alternative paper networks that overlap and often run counter to the official story of empire. The debates about Wembley crossed geographical and intellectual territories, creating links between high and low, local and global, and official and subversive cultures. From the moment that Wembley opened its gates in 1924 until it closed in 1925, it was subject to multiple analyses that neither took the official imperial line at face value nor accepted it as the only possible model for an increasingly pluralistic internationalism.
Dr Elizabeth Ariana Pergam, Dian Woodner Collection, New York, NY
Britain’s Art Wealth on Display: The First Blockbuster
In 1857 the first blockbuster art exhibition was held not in London or Paris, but in Manchester, the industrial shock city of the United Kingdom. Over 16,000 objects, all from British private collections, were displayed for five months to over 1.3 million visitors, including Charles Blanc, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Friedrich Engels. The Art Treasures Exhibition (officially titled “Art Treasures of the United Kingdom. Collected at Manchester in 1857”) became a touchstone of issues of local and national identity in an international context. Intended to rehabilitate Manchester’s image as a city interested only in commerce and rife with class conflict, the exhibition’s organizers deftly marketed the event as representative of the philanthropy and patriotism of the nation’s private, wealthy citizens.
This paper will show that in the rigorous organization of the paintings that comprised the “Ancient Masters,” “Modern Masters,” and “British Portrait Gallery,” the exhibition used art’s history to justify Britain’s powerful position on the world scene. Not only had British collectors “saved” world heritage from fallen empires, but also contemporary British artists had taken up the mantle of the Old Masters. Furthermore, by employing the latest in art historical methods and research, the exhibition positioned Britain at the forefront of a new academic discipline. An examination of the reception of these paintings is a case study of the socio-political subtext of art historical writing in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. The paintings’ post-exhibition history, allows us to see that by the 1880s and accelerating through the following decades, British collections that had seemed impregnable were being dispersed. The locus of economic, political, and cultural influence was shifting across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the theme of the redemptive power of exhibiting art that had been promulgated in 1857 were similarly exported to America and can be seen to this day in its art museums.
Wilson Smith, Economic and Social History, University of Edinburgh
Old London, Old Edinburgh: constructing historic cities
The ‘historic city’, an assemblage of reproduction buildings, became a popular exhibition attraction from the 1880s onwards by spectacularly evoking a familiar past and immersing the visitor in an ‘authentic’ historic townscape. The Old London Street created for the International Health Exhibition of 1884 could claim to be the prototype of the genre: an immediate success, it was retained for the remaining two exhibitions in the South Kensington series. The Street’s attraction was however largely independent of the concerns of its host events, being only remotely related to their ostensible subject matter. Critics categorised Old London as a publicity coup for its Livery Company funders, self-justificatory medievalism as a response to threatened local government reform.
The Old Edinburgh Street was devised in imitation of Old London for the 1886 Edinburgh International Exhibition. In spirit it lay closer to the central aim of that exhibition, the depiction of Scottish life and culture. ‘Old Edinburgh’ supported the contemporary assertion of the city’s status as a historic – and Romantic – capital; and it embodied the turn to nostalgia and antiquarianism in Edinburgh’s intellectual life resulting from the loss of historic urban fabric in the recent processes of Improvement. On the other hand, this Street’s costumed shop attendants demonstrated Edinburgh’s more commercial focus in comparison to South Kensington.
Old London and Old Edinburgh, while superficially similar in concept, therefore offered contrasting accounts of power relations, commercial life, and civic culture in their depiction of their respective ‘historic cities’.