This post by Sandy Jones offers an insight into the work of one Ministry of Information designer.
The MOI’s exhibitions division was created in November 1942
and was responsible for communicating information to the public through a
network of displays. Major exhibitions reinforcing urgent campaigns were
released every two months for distribution to eight regional centres and the
Window Display Scheme circulated new displays every three weeks. Exhibitions were
transported all over the world and special lightweight kits developed to enable
press offices to produce full-sized displays. During the year ending June 1944
alone the division mounted displays and exhibitions for a total audience
exceeding 40 million.
The division was led by Milner Gray and Misha Black and employed around 12 artists, designers and architects. Among its staff was the German émigré, F H K Henrion (1914-1990). Henrion had fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and trained as a textile designer and poster artist in Paris before being offered work in London by the Crown Agents for the British Colonies. He became part of a thriving émigré community experimenting with Modernism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Henrion was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man. He was released after six months, following an appeal by the Artists’ Refugee Council in 1940 who argued that his skills would be invaluable to the war effort. He later reflected ‘I moved from the IOM (Isle of Man) to the MOI (Ministry of Information) which was rather funny. And I was completely bewildered because, from being behind barbed wire one week, I was in an RAF airfield the next.’ He was also given work by the US OWI (Office of War Information) and commissions by the Dutch, Chinese and Yugoslav governments.
Henrion’s experience of designing street posters equipped him with the skills to simplify complex messages and present them vividly to a war-weary public. Using a variety of graphic techniques (such as photomontage, Isotype diagrams, and three-dimensional models), he injected a warmth and wit into his exhibitions with the result that official information also functioned as entertainment.
Among Henrion’s most famous exhibitions was Off the Ration (1942). This formed part of the government’s Dig for Victory campaign and was presented in the ticket hall of Charing Cross Underground. Its aim was to persuade the nation to grow more vegetables and keep animals for food. Henrion appropriated the visual language of the English garden by transforming the mechanical environment of the station into a site of agriculture and active citizenship. The exhibition was stewarded by Land Girls and included live chickens, rabbits and pigs alongside practical guidance.
F H K Henrion. MOI Charing Cross Exhibition ‘Off the Ration’. Land Girl: M Slingsby. 1942. British Official Photograph, photographer unknown. University of Brighton Design Archives, F H K Henrion Archive, FHK/1/48.
F H K Henrion. MOI Exhibition Window Display Scheme. Pig, Poultry and Rabbit Panels. 1942. British Official Photograph, photographer unknown. University of Brighton Design Archives, F H K Henrion Archive, FHK/1/48.
The display was reconfigured for touring and further developed for Regent’s Park Zoo where it became one of the Ministry’s most successful exhibitions. The campaign almost certainly contributed to the growth in allotments from 930,000 before the war to 1.7 million by 1943.
Young America (1944) was held in College Hall, Westminster and subsequently toured the country reaching an audience of more than 37,000 people in 194 locations. Part of an OWI initiative to educate young people about the ‘American way of life’, it aimed to portray a nation leading the charge towards a progressive and democratic future. Henrion communicated these ideas as sequential ‘photo-stories’ presented as a series of open book chapters. Drawing on the photo-exhibition style developed by Herbert Bayer (Bauhaus) for propaganda exhibitions held at the Museum Modern Art in New York (MoMA), the display projected a formality that seems more suited to a mature audience.
F H K Henrion. OWI College Hall Exhibition ‘Young America’. 1944. Photographer: Sydney W Newbery. University of Brighton Design Archives, F H K Henrion Archive, FHK/3/25.
However, when the exhibition toured, it was transformed into an engaging spectacle. Imperial War Museum film rushes show the exhibition arriving at a school in an army truck driven by GIs, children are seen running to greet them and help them unload the displays for installation in the playground.
‘Young America’ Touring Exhibition. 1944. Still from film rushes. (c) IWM (COI 20).
Young America’ Touring Exhibition Installation View. 1944. Still from film rushes. (c) IWM (COI 20).
The two allies cooperated over their propaganda campaigns and the OWI commissioned MoMA to produce a touring version of Bayer's hugely successful Road to Victory (1942), travelling to London as America Marches with the United Nations (1943). The MOI's public information films were shown as part of MoMA’s wartime programme.
Wartime exhibitions were a powerful communication tool designed to influence the people’s minds on specific themes and provided an important source of entertainment. The fact that members of the exhibition division, including Henrion, would later be brought back together to tell the story of the nation’s reconstruction in the Festival of Britain (1951) is a testament to their success. Treated as historical texts, their work provides a valuable insight into the concerns of both the government and the people during the Second World War.