The Ministry of Information experimented with numerous methods of communication. In this second of three posts, Professor Simon Eliot explores how it used a set of exhibitions presented in Charing Cross Underground station for publicity and propaganda purposes.
Many of the most famous Ministry of Information (MOI) exhibitions were held in a display space at Charing Cross Underground station. It was here, in December 1940, that the MOI put on its first large-scale exhibition: ‘London Pride’. This display was designed to celebrate the endurance and indomitability of Londoners in the face of the Blitz, and was opened by the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison.
1940: ‘London Pride’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 1756)
In January and February 1942 there was an exhibition on ‘Tanks’ and later in that year the whole display space was given over to ‘The Story of Lin – A Picture of China at War’ that had been supported by the Far Eastern section of the MOI and the Chinese Ministry of Information.
1942: ‘The Story of Lin’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 9445)
In the same year ‘Bread into Battle’, with its theme ‘Food is a Munition of War – Don’t Waste It’ rehearsed the desperate need to protect food production and food stocks.
1942: ‘Bread into Battle’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 8727)
Alliances old and new were also celebrated in the depths of Charing Cross. Again in 1942, ‘Comrades in Arms: Pictures of the Soviet at War’ was presented featuring large portraits of Churchill and a very avuncular Joseph Stalin.
1942: ‘Comrades in Arms’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 7027)
A year later the Anglo-American alliance was celebrated in a slightly more subtle way through an exhibition entitled ‘John Olsson – the Story of an Average American’. This was jointly supported by the United States Office of War Information and the MOI, and appeared as the build-up of US troops prior to the D-Day landing of 1944 was being planned. The striking use of very large photographic images and specially-designed display furniture is clear in the following photograph. Also visible is an enquiry desk under a representation of the Stars and Stripes carrying the encouraging banner ‘your questions on America answered here’.
1943: ‘John Olsson - the story of an average American’ at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 15217)
Another of the exhibitions laid on in 1943 focused on the main theatre of war involving American (as well as the British) troops. Called ‘Jungle Front - the War in the South Pacific’ it featured three front screens illustrating dense jungle vegetation, each of which had an irregular opening hacked, as it were, through the plant life to allow the visitor to see into, or pass through into, the main display area.
1943: ‘Jungle Front – The War in the South Pacific’ at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 16576)
The home front was not forgotten in the busy subterranean exhibition space of Charing Cross. ‘Count your Coupons’ in 1943 returned to the frequently-discussed subjects of saving, making do, mending, and salvaging – all those minor domestic sacrifices that collectively were claimed to be a heroic contribution to the war effort. The introduction to the exhibition included the following optimistic exhortation preceded by ‘If’ in giant, raised lettering: ‘If everybody took a pair of scissors and cut out and gave to salvage one coupon it would release 8,000 workers, 5,000 tons of raw material which could be used to make 2,000,000 battledresses or clothe 500,000 soldiers from head to foot, including underwear, boots and greatcoat.’
1943: ‘Count your Coupons’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 13064)
Not all exhibitions were factual or exhortatory. Some were devoted to the moral and intellectual grounds for Britain’s war on the Axis powers. In 1940 ‘Books and Freedom’, organised by National Book Council and supported by the MOI, used books and reading to contrast life inside Nazi Germany to the situation in Britain. The display partly consisted of giant ‘books’, such as the example below. This features a left-hand page with a picture of a German soldier amid the ruins of war; underneath which was just one book, Mein Kampf. On the right-hand page, a British pilot is shown resting against the undercarriage of his plane, apparently reading one of the many different titles illustrated below.
1940: ‘Book and Freedom’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 1186)
The aircraft itself is interesting as it appears to be a British army Lysander (manufactured by Westland Aircraft). This was neither a bomber nor a fighter, but a ‘co-operation and liaison' aircraft frequently used to deliver British agents and British information to occupied territories in Europe. Aircraft recognition during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz which followed was a survival skill, and one that was encouraged by the publication of many books on the subject (such as E. Colston Shepherd, Aircraft Identification – Friend or Foe? first published in 1939, or Cassandra, Spot Them in the Air! published by the Daily Mirror in 1940). Quite a few of the public who attended this exhibition in 1940 would therefore have been able to read much more in this picture than we can today.
1940: Introduction to the ‘Books and Freedom’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (IWM, D 1192)
What was implicit in the comparison between ‘The Nazi Way’ and ‘The British Way’ was made explicit in another of the giant books on display. Indeed, as the image above shows, the introduction to ‘Books and Freedom’ began with a rallying cry: ‘Civilisation to-day is based upon books’. These words were attributed to the then Minister of Information, Duff Cooper. There can be little doubt that many of those working hard in the MOI to produce the millions of books and magazines it distributed across the globe would have agreed.
You can find out more about the MOI’s use of exhibitions in the first blog post in this series.
The images used in the post, and many more besides, are held by the Imperial War Museum. You can explore their collection at http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections-research