"Steering a progressive course"? Exhibitions in wartime and postwar Britain
The idea that many of the large number of exhibitions held during World War 2 were ‘steering a most progressive course’ was advanced in an article called ‘The Wartime Exhibition’ that appeared in the Architectural Review in October 1943. The article was written by G S Kallmann, an architect with exhibition experience, and who seems to have been involved editorially with the Architectural Review in the 1940s, although firm information about him has proved difficult to find. This ‘progressive course’, Kallmann argued, was especially evident in the way that elements of modern art and architecture were incorporated into the design of exhibitions organised by public bodies, such as the Ministry of Information (MoI) and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA). As well as these, my paper also touches on the work of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) – the post-war Arts Council - the British Institute for Adult Education (BIAE) and the Artists’ International Association (AIA), all of which were involved in the production and touring of exhibitions during the period, and often included the same personalities within their ranks.
The intention in arranging such a large number of exhibitions was generally to educate, inform and entertain the public; frequently these aims overlapped. Exhibitions were considered particularly suited to meeting all these needs, and often formed the focal point of wider campaigns using the press, radio broadcasts, posters, books and film. Implicit in almost all, too, was an element of propaganda, particularly in those organised by government agencies, such as the well-known ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. Many exhibitions were made for touring, sometimes in purpose-built vehicles, as illustrated both in Kallmann’s article and in Misha Black’s 1950 book on exhibition design , or for display in non-traditional locations such as stations, retail premises and workers’ canteens. This is especially significant, given the desire of certain bodies and individuals to make the visual language of modern art and design much more widely accessible than had been the case in the 1930s, and especially to take it beyond the confines of the metropolis. Themes that run through this paper, and which underlay much of what was written about exhibitions during the 1940s, include concerns about the notion of ‘public taste’ and how this might be ‘educated’ or indeed ‘improved’, and the associated question of the social class of this new kind of audience the organisers wished to reach. Whilst exhibitions generally might have been reaching a wider middle-class audience, their compatibility with working-class living and working patterns is not always so certain.
During the war, some commercial galleries stayed open and continued to show work by contemporary artists, whilst more traditional work from the Royal Academy summer exhibitions toured the provinces under the auspices of CEMA. However, the proliferation of exhibitions aimed beyond the world of the connoisseur and patron was largely the responsibility of government departments and other non-commercial institutions. Within the labyrinthine structure of the Ministry of Information were its Displays and Exhibitions Division and the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), as well as branches producing photographic and graphic material and film. Initially, the MoI, tasked with censorship, propaganda, and public morale, was a decidedly disorganised organisation. Perhaps for this reason, it was able to accommodate individual ‘pet projects’, such as Sir Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee, or the interest in good modern design of people like Frank Pick, formerly of London Transport , and the two men initially in charge of the Exhibitions Division, Milner Gray and Misha Black. Later in the war, however, this creative chaos was replaced by tighter administrative controls and a much more bureaucratic structure.
Milner Gray headed the Exhibitions Division until November 1941 and continued as Head of the Creative Section until the re-organisation of 1943, when he was replaced by someone with a background in advertising in the retail sector, whose attitude was that:
the section will no longer be dominated by pure design mentality … [and] will bring to the Division’s work a good quality advertising judgment and practice as opposed to mere high level design capacity; I am expecting a considerable improvement in output as well, as a result of effective management instead of the previous situation in which designers were allowed to do as they liked.
This is a particularly surprising remark as Gray and Black ran a successful practice before the war which included both display and advertising work of a high standard, and a large number of displays and exhibitions had already been produced by the Division, often at short notice. This leads to the conclusion that it was the nature of the design work they carried out for Mol which was at issue.
With this in mind, it may not have been a coincidence that Kallmann’s article, which praised the work of the Exhibitions Division under Gray, came out at almost the same time that Gray was dismissed. Misha Black, already an acknowledged authority on exhibition architecture, whom Gray chose as his assistant, had worked with Gray before the war in the Industrial Design Partnership. In the latter part of 1939 the partnership had responded to the invitation from Art and Industry to ‘state their wartime case’ in the following words:
The urgent need will very soon be apparent for instructive information to the British Public to help them to readjust themselves to new conditions…The small portable exhibition in its various forms designed by artists who are best qualified to tell a story graphically and with economy would prove to be one useful remedy.
This emphasis on the need to employ specialised artists and designers in state-sponsored schemes is reiterated in many documents of the time. An early paper on an MoI file, A Note on Exhibition Technique by A G Highet, was based on the writer’s pre-war Post 0ffice experience, and may well have influenced the formulation of MoI policy:
Selection of the designer is … of importance, but hardly more so than selection of the individual commissioning him. If the latter has what may be described as a ‘bridescake’ mind, a piece of confectionery will be produced ... [which] will be an anachronism in these days of simplification of line and of structures which look fit for their purpose, and the viewer will depart with the almost ineradicable impression that the department responsible is behind the times.
Highet’s use of the phrases ‘simplification of line’ and ‘’fit for their purpose’ exemplifies the way that support for modern art, architecture and design could be implied rather than declared in the language used.