The Ministry of Information experimented with numerous methods of communication. In this first in a series of three posts Professor Simon Eliot explores how it used exhibitions for publicity and propaganda purposes.
The Ministry of Information (MOI) used exhibitions to convey information in an entertaining and easily-digested form. They complemented the Ministry’s other means of communication but had the advantage of being able to employ a combination of texts, photographs, powerful graphics, objects of all sorts, practical demonstrations and, on occasions, information booths occupied by those able to answer questions raised by the content.
The simplest exhibition might consist of no more than a sequence of photographs mounted on a wall or two, with a collection of magazines and pamphlets scattered on an adjacent table.
1941 exhibition on the Middle East in the foyer of Senate House, the MOI’s headquarters (D4075)
It had taken some time for the MOI to convince itself that public exhibitions were worthwhile, and that it had sufficient resources to mount them successfully. It was not until the 15 January 1940 that the Home Division finally confirmed its policy on exhibitions, and agreed to appoint an expert to design ‘flat pack’ exhibits that could be sent to some of the 200 museums in the UK which were members of the Museums Association. Additionally, a series of travelling exhibitions was planned during February and, in March 1940, the Treasury approved £25,000 to cover the costs of these.
As the phrase implies, the flat-pack exhibitions were designed to be mobile, and could be parcelled up and later reassembled in a variety of locations all over the country – and beyond.
Many used large photographs and posters hung on a series of specially-made frames which might be arranged to provide a ‘walk-though’ experience with the frames forming a variety of display spaces.
1943: setting up part of a ‘Make Do and Mend’ exhibition (D14646)
Some of the display furniture was much more elaborate and featured specially-made units with a range of functions such as this exhibition on the work of the London Fire Brigade which was shipped to New York in 1941.
Display units from a 1941 exhibition on the London Fire Services
Many simpler exhibitions were designed to be presented as shop window displays. By July 1940 the MOI had decided to send ‘photographic and poster material’ to 350 ‘good class’ shops throughout the UK for window displays. This scheme was given £12,000 by the Treasury in August 1940, and was then extended to cover 1,000 window displays for six months.
A 1943 window display in Selfridge’s in London (D12673)
There was, for instance, an extensive exhibition on ‘Colonial Life’, including a section on ‘Colonies at War’ held in the car showrooms of Rootes in Piccadilly.
A 1943 exhibition on ‘Colonies at War’ at the Rootes car showroom in Piccadilly (D17866)
At James Brooke and Sons on Bethnal Green High Road there was a ‘Domestic Front’ display with associated war-time cookery demonstrations.
1943 ‘Domestic Front’ exhibition at James Brooke and Sons, Bethnal Green (D17481)
Many exhibitions, though they may have had their first outing in London, were intended to be displayed elsewhere in the country. This applied even to the largest and most ambitious exhibitions. ‘The Army Exhibition’ designed for the War Office, which consisted of no fewer than 23,000 exhibits and covered some 56,000 square feet, is one such example. It was assembled on the bomb-damaged site of the John Lewis department store at 278 Oxford Street in 1943, before being transferred to Birmingham and then to Cardiff in 1944.
1943 ‘Army Exhibition’ at John Lewis, Oxford Street (D15087)
The need for salvage was a frequent subject of campaigns and of the exhibitions that reinforced them. Some of these exhibitions took their display space with them. The ‘Private Scrap is in Town’ campaign consisted of a car towing a trailer, along the side of which were mounted (in weather-protected frames) a series of panels, which were continued inside. Also attached to the trailer was a specially-designed bin to receive used books that could then be sent on to replace bombed-damaged library stock, or to members of the armed forces as reading material or, if unreadable, to be pulped and made into new paper stock.
Mobile salvage exhibition at Senate House in 1943 (D13549)
Exhibitions could even be displayed in different parts of the same city, and adapted to a variety of sites. In 1942 ‘Off the Ration’ was designed to encourage people to grow their own fruit and vegetables, and to keep hens, rabbits, and pigs for food. Parts of this were designed as simple window displays that could easily be put up in any part of the country.
1942 ‘Off the Ration’ window display (D8534)
Other parts clearly required larger spaces, which offered visitors the opportunity to walk through a series of displays, and these would be set up in locations such as the Regent’s Park Zoo in London.
1942 ‘Off the Ration’ exhibition at Regent’s Park Zoo (D10030)
Another version of ‘Off the Ration’ was presented in the Charing Cross Underground station where the display space was large enough to include live hens and pigs.
1942 ‘Off the Ration’ exhibition at Charing Cross underground station (D7863)
It is clear from these examples that the MOI viewed exhibitions as an important way of conveying information to the general public. The research that the ‘A Publishing and Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45’ team are currently undertaking hopes, in part, to bring these displays to life. And it is therefore fitting that we will be putting on our own exhibition as part of the 2014 Being Human festival. We hope that it will encourage many more people to explore this vivid part of the MOI’s history.
You can find our more about the MOI's use of exhibitions in the second 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