Cold War Expo Symposium, V&A, Friday 5th January 2007

While the museum world seems quiet and there's little news to report (apart from the frankly stunning revelation that the BBC is in talks with Morrissey to pen the UK's 2007 Eurovision entry - not that that has ANYTHING to do with museums, it just excites me intensely!), I thought I'd write briefly about a symposium I went to last Friday.

The V&A are planning an exhibition of Cold War design in 2008 (by all accounts, it looks like it's going to be great), and the two day symposium (I only went to the second day) marked the start of the planning process. The first paper (Creative America: The US Pavilion at Expo '67, by Rebecca Dalvesco, The Art Institute of Chicago) of the day focused on the Expo held in Montreal at the height of the Space Race and the frantic oneupmanship displayed by the designers of the American pavilion in response to leaked information about an anti-gravity simulator at the focul point of the Soviet presentation. This was followed by Irina Murray's (British Architectural Library, RIBA) paper, Culture and Conflict Among the Caribou: Geopolitics and the Czechoslovak Pavilion at Expo '67, which focused on the Czechoslovakian pavilion at the same Expo, which was notable for its state of the art multimedia presentations and the conscious decision on the part of the designers to challenge perceptions of communist society in the West, and thus, for the complete absence of socialist realist themes or iconography.

Harriet Atkinson's (Royal College of Art) paper, Domesticating the Atom? Detecting the Cold War in the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibitions, appealed to me most, with her main argument being that while virtually no explicit reference was made to the contemporary geopolitical situation in the textual material accompanying the exhibitions and events that made up the festival, the Festival of Britain by design had EVERYTHING to do with the Cold War, the promotion of atomic power/weaponry and the ideological promotion of the nation as family. Her paper was followed, after lunch, by Conway Lloyd Morgan's (University of Wales, Newport) presentation, Pleasure Domes with Caves of ? Bucky in Kabul, which focused on a World's Fair hosted by the King of Afghanistan in 1956, and which witnessed the eleventh hour participation of the US when the strategic significance of Afghanistan was recognised. The final paper for which I was present for its entirety (had to leave early to catch the train!) was Jonathan Sweet's (Deakin University, Melbourne) Cold War Exhibition Intrigue in Indo-China: Laos' That Luang Fair in the 1960s, which presented research in progress into an obscure and barely documented exposition which took place in - at that time - the 'epicentre of Cold War tension'.

What was fascinating, and which all the papers revealed, was the propagandist potential of exhibition and display, tied up with ideas about architecture as performance and locked into visions and conceptions of the Other (here, the communist Other). By continually emphasising its own openness and transparency and providing public access to the 'real thing (e.g. genuine artefacts of the Apollo missions supplied by NASA), the West (and particularly America) sought to manipulate, promote and consolidate its self image amongst its own citizens, potential allies and those beyond the Iron Curtain, for whom any tangible contact with the West would otherwise have been highly unlikely and problematic, to say the least. Of course this public relations exercise in self-promotion worked both ways, with communist regimes seeking to assert their identity and validity by employing similar methods. If I had one criticism of the programme, it would be that there was not enough material giving the alternate, non-Western perspective of the Expo phenomenon. Photographic glimpses of the pavilions of Cultural Revolution-era People's Republic of China and the USSR at the fair held in Laos in the late 60s, left me wanting to see more. From a personal perspective, not only did the symposium provide some contextual material for my own research, it offered the opportunity to spend a day listening to papers produced, for the most part, by non-museum studies researchers, providing exciting new perspectives on issues relating to exhibition and display.

As a final point, I would like to draw your attention to the new Cold War exhibit to open at the RAF Museum in February. After years of neglect it would appear that the political context of the post-war period is, at long last, finally deemed suitable for interpretation and presentation in the museum environment. A period of time which, afterall, will have affected all of our lives (except the very young amongst us!) to a greater or lesser extent on a daily basis until the thawing of relations between the East and West (yuck - problematic terms at the best of times!) in the late 1980s.


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