Claire Wintle - Exhibition making in crisis: professional identity and radical design after the Second World War
Dear Claire, Thanks for a great talk, very well presented. I was fascinated by the cross fertilisation of fashionable shop window display and ethnographic collections in the period. I was also very interested in the point you made (very well) about how a crisis in staffing and resources led to improvised strategies that could be innovative as a result. However, I wondered if you had a sense of what exhibition-makers might have liked to do if money was no object. Did you get a sense of this? I wondered if the aesthetics of a Selfridges type display would not have appealed to the good design morals of the period and that sparse and modest displays, while cheap, represented high-mindedness as well as lack of funds. Just musings! Happy to hear your thoughts.
Dear Claire, such an interesting paper - thank you! - so much food for thought. I'm intrigued by the point you made early on about the responsibilities of exhibiting "problematic collections". Do you think there were particular curatorial/ design strategies for displaying these collections, perhaps masking or mitigating strategies or signs that the displays were acknowledging/ apologising for previous abuses of power? Also, I'm interested in your mention of where display influences were coming from. Beyond trade fairs, commercial contexts and window displays, how far afield were British museum keepers of the 1960s looking for models of good museum exhibition design practice? What were the model institutions/ nations? What a wonderful conference - congratulations to you, Kate and Hajra - such a tonic to have all this wealth of fascinating material at my finger tips - such a very rich diet after my almost monastic academic existence. Thanks again and all best, Harriet
Dear Bella, thank you for your nice comments. Are there any useful readings on fashionable shop window displays, 1945-1980 (the scope of my wider project) that I should be looking at? Recommendations gratefully received.
If money was no object… The main thing that curators were asking for during this period (as perhaps in most periods?!) was physical space. More space to spread things out and create less crowded displays (so 'sparse', but in terms of objects). Modernist paradigms were of interest, but there was just no space to show collections in this way. The idea that many objects could remain in store rather than on display was only slowly becoming acceptable. On that note, I’ve been working on the concept of ‘object anxiety’ and am beginning to conceptualise how many of the museum makers at this time seemed to be terrified of the objects they had on their hands (particularly of how many there were) – it seemed they dreamed of more space and no collections?!
In terms of design, and your speculation that commercial design practices were unappealing in the museum arena: I think that’s right. Certainly, some museums were happy to associate with commercial aesthetics and realms (I’ll have to investigate the Birmingham display at the National Trades and Home Life Exhibition further!) – Leeds were specifically adopting modern display techniques borrowed from trade fairs and exhibitions and shop window displays. But I get a sense that many in the museum sector looked on commercial design with deep suspicion. My most compelling examples are from the post-1965 period, when clashes between professional designers and curators become more explicit as more in-house designers are appointed. But, even when I interviewed Margaret Hall, who came from a commercial background and was appointed as the British Museum’s first professional inhouse designer in 1964, she said that she didn’t think that shop and trade fair designs melded well with the museum world: ‘I didn’t think they were necessarily appropriate for the museum […] I thought probably commercial design was a bit too flashy and that museum design had to be a bit more serious.’ So, I think you’re probably right Bella! I will reflect on the issue of 'morals' in my research as it limps on! Thanks again, Claire
Glad you’re enjoying the conference. Thanks for your kind words, and for your questions (on all of the papers).
The main strategy for masking and mitigating abuses of power in the 1945-1965 period was to erase and expunge – to take objects off display (and sell them or even repatriate them) as a conscious act of forgetting (Robert Aldrich is good on this). Where abuses of power are confronted, it is usually to defend the British perspective (at the Commonwealth Institute in the case of Mau Mau, for example). There is a case in Bristol, where, at the public opening of the “Focus on Colonial Progress” exhibition in 1959, a woman in the audience with a linen banner pinned to her chest bearing the legend “Stop the War in Malaya” interrupted the proceedings to make a speech about the injustice of ‘training our sons as thugs and throat-slitters’. She is – of course, branded ‘semi-hysterical’ and ejected from the event.
There have been lots of seminal texts on the ways in which typological, aesthetic and collaborative modes of display (both used in the mid-20th century) mask the realities of colonial encroachment and injustice (Annie Coombes and Constance Classen are good places to start, and Nikki Grout (UoB) is doing amazing work on the limits of collaborative practice during this period). But slightly later, in the late 1960s and 1970s (but before the 1980s, when people tend to think this kind of practice started), several new curatorial strategies emerged, in which museums like the Museum of Mankind (part of the British Museum) and Ulster Museum in Belfast tangentially/tentatively referenced colonial legacies in their displays (by highlighting environmental destruction and competitive land claims in the Americas and the Middle East, for example). The curator at Ulster Museum in Belfast in the 1970s, while characterising some of her donors as ‘charitable and philanthropic’, also explicitly pointed out in an exhibition catalogue that some museum objects were robbed from graves by their collectors. Interestingly, rather than condemning this outright, she uses the distancing mechanism of academia to frame her critique, saying that the objects that were collected in this way have no cultural or aesthetic significance (and are therefore not on display - again, erasure rather than full acknowledgment).
In terms of the geographical location that display influences were coming from – ICOM-organised visits to investigate good practice were to Switzerland in 1956, and the Netherlands in 1962 (there may have been others). Individually, curators also travelled abroad throughout Europe (especially Scandinavia and the Netherlands) and the US. David Wilson, in his history of the British Museum identifies the Statens Historiska Museum in Stockholm (redesigned in 1930s/40s) and US museums as pioneering and influential at this time. Slightly later (in the 1970s), museum curators with experiences of working in North America and New Zealand came to the UK, and instigated some more progressive forms of display and collections management as a result of the inspirations they gained there.
Hope that helps!
@claire-w Dear Claire, thank you - for organising the conference and also for your paper. I am intrigued by your description of the woman bearing "Stop the War in Malaya", which occurred during the Malayan Emergency and would like to learn more about it. Can you point me to the resource for further reading? Thanks again, Kelvin
@kelvin Hi Kelvin - it will be explored in my book (when it gets written!) I found details about it in the archive in the museum in Bristol. I really enjoyed your paper by the way - such an exciting methodological proposal!
@claire-w Thanks Claire. I wondered about that showy (commercial) versus sober (curatorial) split so that was really interesting. Object anxiety sounds fascinating. In terms of retail display design histories, I’m aware of Patricia Lara Betancourt et al’s edited collection, Architectures I’d Display (2018) and Visual Merchandising: The Image of Selling (2013) but I’ve only flicked through them. Looking forward to your book!
@claire-w Dear Claire, thank you for your kind words. I wait with anticipation for your book.
Hi Claire – thanks to you and your team for organizing this conference. Much needed as Harriet says for the academic stimulus as well as for the critical assessment of exhibition making. I wanted to acknowledge your use of the term “exhibition makers” rather than designers – exhibition creation takes a wealth of talent from a myriad of disciplines often with no formal design training and that’s what makes it one of the most rewarding areas.
Thanks for your fascinating paper – the other comments here have pointed out the contested influences designers brought into museums during the early 60s – namely commercial and retail related. Professional design as a method of practice is tied to commerce and economics among other things – essentially it is a product of the socio-economic climate of the time – if new materials are available designers will want to use them, if Scandinavian inspired simplicity is all the rage, designers will want to deploy it – my point is that design is inherently present to future orientated and this has at times rubbed up against the general museum practice of acknowledging the past because that’s what museums do – to collect and interpret the past (most of the time). You mentioned the work of museum technicians who partnered with curators to design and build many of the exhibits cited – this partnership still exists in many museums today because there is an advantageous power dynamic involved for the curator who will likely always get their way. Please don’t take my comments as those of a disgruntled designer 😀 – I’ve worked with amazing curators on highly collaborative projects as equals – as Kate’s paper points out Margaret Hall perfected this relationship over time as did Gill Ravenel at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. as a contemporary of Hall’s. Great subject and lots to delve into - thanks
Thanks for these comments and your contributions to the conference so far.
I’m intrigued by your hints towards a dichotomy of design=future and museums=past. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed finding out about in this conference, including in your excellent paper, is the powerful role of the past in professional design practice. This is especially the case in Roberta Marcaccio’s paper on Ernesto Rogers’ relationship with history (Panel 9), and in the papers advocating decolonial practice in Panel 1. But it is also striking throughout: seeing so many of our presenters acknowledging past luminaries in their practice makes me very aware of how status and expertise are often affirmed through the process of connecting with the past. It is also of course the case, that – just as in the design world – museums are deeply entwined with economic structures, through the value assumptions that visitors (but also those working in museums) bring to and create through the museum space, and through the need to fundraise and participate in a capitalist economy more generally.
You’re absolutely right to call out the power dynamics of the technician (and other exhibition makers) and the curator. In my rush to celebrate technicians and museum assistants in my paper (and in this conference more generally), I brushed over the hierarchies that have always existed and need to be challenged. I’m not sure about curators always getting their way though. I think some really close material analyses of how technicians, museum assistants, designers and others have ‘got their way’ through small but powerful material interventions would be fascinating. Could exhibition making even be a form of resistance? You can see some of this incredible creative contribution, even within these power dynamics, in Barbara Fahs Charles paper, in Sarah Longair’s work on Juma Rajab at in colonial Zanzibar (Panel 9), and in Hajra’s interview of Nima Poovya Smith, a curator who cautions us to ‘never underestimate your local community’ (Panel 10).
Anyway, I hope one day we can have these conversations over a cup of coffee in person. Very much looking forward to the book! Claire
Claire and Tim, may I join your coffee discussion of power dynamics? In person someday, I hope. In the meantime, a small anecdote relative to the dynamics of curators and preparators. When I worked on my first project at the Chicago Historical Society, c1974, I wasn't allowed into the preparator's workshop even to see things being prepared for an exhibition that we were designing. I then learned that none of the curators, all of whom were women, were permitted into the workshop. So, while the two preparators, both male, had to listen to the curators (and female designer's) requests in the galleries, they maintained their own space that they totally controlled. Claire, a huge thank you to you and your colleagues for organizing this terrific conference. I have learned a lot. Barbara Fahs Charles
Dear Barbara, thank you for documenting and raising this issue. Gender is such an important aspect of the power dimensions in all this and I am sorry to hear about your unacceptable marginalisation. Your note also made me think of the spatial dynamics of the museum/design office, of closed offices for curators, open plan spaces for designers – this is another aspect of collaboration and exhibition making that seems critical. Thanks again.
Claire, enjoyed your paper so much -- thank you, again, another paper where I learned so much and that I wish I had the time to re-listen, have a conversation in person about… (Also, "engraved perspex!!!!", that really made me giggle!)
These have been such inspirational ten days, thank you and the others for putting this together -- much looking forward to this afternoon's panel! J
i never felt marginalized—more amused. A question that could be interesting is whether museum design has changed with so many more women in the field. Fabricators tell me that earlier, designers were more likely to have an industrial design background and now more of the designers they work with come from graphics, which may be related. Fabrication shops are still mostly male, but the pin-ups on the carpenters work areas have disappeared. Barbara