Exhibition Making in Crisis: Professional Identity and Radical Design after the Second World War

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


Crisis reigned in the post-war period for British museum curators, especially for those who cared for objects from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Even at that time, their collections were seen as problematic – potent reminders of imperial guilt, and a perceived drain on institutions seeking to expunge their global links and cement their provincial, ‘British’ identities. Public funds were being re-directed to essential post-war regeneration, while museums and their bomb-damaged sites were stretched to extremes. The curatorial profession was also in crisis: war-time staffing levels were slow to recover, and the curator’s centrality was soon to be challenged by new professional roles within the museum, including that of the designer.

There was no single reaction to this atmosphere of crisis in exhibition making. Some curators responded directly to the world of commercial design, anticipating the specialist museum design departments of the 1960s. They designed their own modern exhibits featuring innovative materials, lighting and object placement. Elsewhere, commercial design techniques were of little concern: exhibitions were instead driven by the pressures of collections and limited resources. Exhibition design became a ‘hand-to-mouth’ activity (as one curator described it), with a makeshift and almost DIY character. Yet crucially, as part of this crisis-fuelled practice, and well before debates about the place of Britain, museums and curators in a post-war world were settled, several alternative exhibition opportunities emerged: artists, academics, young people, and local communities – including people of colour – were temporarily and tentatively accepted into the museum as exhibition makers. Other curators moved away from their damaged, burdensome sites to make exhibitions beyond the walls of the museum, or loaned objects to community-led exhibitions.

This paper seeks to document this post-war history of museum exhibition making in a time of crisis. It identifies a critical moment in the emergence and professionalisation of modern museum exhibition design, but also points to some of the unexpected tropes that emerged in this period of flux: engulfed by crisis, exhibition design became a site of what we might term radical practice. The results of these endeavours were not necessarily progressive; nor were they born of progressive politics. Yet an examination of this history may give some insight into how museums can respond to our current moment of crisis, of funding, of empire, and of responsibility.
Event titleMuseum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • museums
  • Exhibitions
  • design
  • post-war