Overseas Exhibitions of the Council of Industrial Design 1949-1972: Design Exhibition, Projecting and Selling Modern Britain
The Council of Industrial Design was founded in 1944 for the purpose of improving the understanding of design within British industry and to stimulate the sale of ‘good design’ products at home and abroad. Among five main functions of the CoID declared in the first annual report of the CoID in 1945, the role of the CoID in relation with exhibiting design at home and abroad was asserted as strategically important: it provided publicity. Yet initial research shows that the role of the CoID in the process of planning and organising overseas exhibitions was rather passive and often limited to an adviser working at the request of government departments and other public bodies. It was not until a small exhibition of industrial design held in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 1949 that the CoID finally materialised its function of directly promoting overseas exhibitions.
From then, the activity of the CoID in staging British products and design grew annually and was regarded as necessary and effective for the acceleration of the export trade as well as for the promotion of British modern design, or ‘good design’. Various kinds of overseas exhibitions – thematic and prestigious exhibitions, the British government stands at international exhibitions and numerous trade fairs - were held in many different countries including most of the West European nations, other East European communist states, USA, Canada and commonwealth countries, as well as Japan.
This thesis began with my interest in similarities and differences of these exhibitions. The issue of how far the specific circumstances of each exhibition process had an impact on the form and the contents of the exhibition will be addressed through selected case studies. Comparative analysis of different exhibitions, processes of planning and displaying, dialogues among organisers and participating exhibitors/manufacturers, exhibits and exhibition designs will reveal consistencies and significant changes in the representation of British design. This examination will develop debates about the formation of modern design in Britain through exhibition policies of the CoID and undercover specific relationships between Britain and other nations.
The Research Field
Studies of exhibitions have proliferated since the late 1980s. A Foucauldian approach, that is, defining a collection of objects as an embodiment of knowledge related with power, has been adopted in much museology research and international exhibition studies. Ways of choosing and displaying certain objects are interpreted as cultivation of certain ideologies and identities. Some writings, in particular, reveal how design carries certain messages often ideological, political and national, through the medium of exhibition. How design embodies national identity, in particular how British national identity is defined through design, is one of the often-discussed subjects in design history. Britishness or Englishness is often defined as retrospection, ruralism, as having a strong bond with tradition, leisure and fair play. The role and influence of the CoID in the context of British modern design has been mentioned in the majority of works on British post-war design. Its struggling role as a promoter of ‘good design’ to British industry and public was prevalently recognised. Among all the activities, ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946 and ‘Festival of Britain’ in 1951 have attracted most academic attention.
The establishment of the Design Council Archive at the University of Brighton provide an opportunity to access valuable internal documents of the CoID and resulted in studies that recognise various complex problems the CoID faced in the organisation of such events within broad political contexts. However, the focus of these studies lies on the early period of the CoID and there is much scope for new research about the activities of the CoID from the 1950s onwards. This thesis will further the understanding of the work of the CoID in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
The proposed thesis structure can be divided into three sections.
Overall exhibition policy of the CoID and the British government for overseas exhibitions
The policy of the CoID towards overseas exhibitions varied with exhibition because its involvement was heavily dependent on other government departments and public organisations, from the initiatives to the financial details. Host countries also had an influence on the process of policy-making of the CoID.
Budgets and costs of exhibitions had to be one of the major concerning matters when the Council considered the possibility of certain exhibitions. Encouraging export was important: the CoID, understandably, had to justify its activity abroad to the Board of Trade.
How far the overseas exhibition policy of the CoID could be differentiated from its overall exhibition policy will be argued. Also, how the stance of the British government towards the CoID’s involvement in overseas exhibitions changed according to specific political and economical context will be examined.
Case Studies – Selection of exhibitions will be assessed. This section will be divided into four chapters
My selection of exhibitions as suitable case studies is based on their significance in the CoID’s activities and the availability of primary materials in Britain. Although the reaction from the host countries to British exhibitions and exhibits should not be ignored, the focus of this thesis initially lies on the intention of the CoID in organising overseas exhibitions. Thematic exhibitions were organised as special events and considered more cultural than commercial. The other kinds of exhibitions, that is, trade fairs, retail store exhibitions, and British Week were regarded as primarily commercial events.
Analysis of issues drawn from comparative analysis of the case studies
The in-depth examination of selected case studies and their comparison with each other will reveal the complicated processes of organising exhibition by the CoID as a government funded organisation with limited rights and assets. I will ask how this limitation affected its conduct of overseas exhibitions and what made certain exhibitions possible even successful and others not.
In addition, I will consider whether overseas exhibitions were effective ways to convey the ideology of the CoID, promoting modern British design, and British national identity. A much more popular version of British identity symbolised by 'Swinging London', youth culture and pop art in the period of my study dominated the concept of Britishness. But a homogeneous national identity is rarely found in any culture. The British modernity that the CoID pursued through overseas exhibitions will be seen as an official version of Britishness conceived by a particular group of the British cultural establishment.
Another important aspect of overseas exhibitions is the relation of design to industry, trade and export. Design had been regarded as driving export and as a medium to strengthen national competitiveness since the 19th century. The CoID saw overseas exhibitions as good venues to build constant contact with manufacturers, to increase trade with countries holding exhibitions, so ultimately to give benefits to industry and national economy alike. I will examine how the relationship between design, industry and nation was articulated in the CoID’s overseas exhibitions.
The Overseas Research Student Awards Scheme 2001/2
The Overseas Research Student Awards Scheme 2002/3