Exhibition Making in Crisis: Professional identity and radical museum exhibition design in Britain after the Second World War

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Abstract

This article examines the shifting professional identities and forms of exhibition design that were activated by the post-war crisis in UK museums. Drawing on professional publications and museum archives across the UK, it focuses on museum exhibition design for ‘ethnographic collections’ between 1945 and 1965. It documents the sense of collections excess that occurred as objects returned from war-time storage to their bomb-damaged museums; it highlights how – as funding, materials and government attention turned to reconstruction elsewhere – museum staff faced this crisis alone.

The article identifies two key tropes in post-war museum exhibition design that relate to this crisis. Both draw upon a ‘makeshift’ approach and both can be aligned with a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ (DIY) ethic associated with a shortage of professional labour and more democratic modes of production. Firstly, some exhibition makers responded with creativity and innovation, drawing on new materials and commercial and artistic practices to design exhibitions that were radical for museums at this time. Without external support, museum technicians took a leading role in this experimental practice. Secondly, curatorial apathy towards display temporarily carved out inclusive spaces for artists, academics and local communities to design their own exhibitions in ways that remain radical in museums even today.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Design History
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

Keywords

  • museums
  • Post-war
  • exhibition design
  • exhibition history
  • professionalisation

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