Harriet Atkinson reflects on attending and presenting at ‘Exhibitions, New Nations and the Human Factor, 1873-1939’ 

 

After two years of dressing for Zoom and speaking into a laptop screen, I was daunted by the prospect of returning to presenting at a conference in person. However, ‘Exhibitions, New Nations and the Human Factor, 1873-1939’ was the perfect place to re-start. Held earlier this month at the Institut National D’Histoire De L’Art (INHA) in Paris, the symposium was organised by Dr Marta Filipova of CRAACE (Continuity/ Rupture: Art and Architecture in Central Europe 1918-1939), a five-year research project at Masaryk University, Brno. The two days focused on the human agency of world’s fairs and international exhibitions, bringing together (both in person and online) scholars from many locations including Melbourne, Tel Aviv and Johannesburg to share recent research and new perspectives.

Panel themes included the role of engineers and designers, imperialisms and anti-imperialisms, national and supra-national identities in arts and crafts and exhibitionary ideologies. My own paper, ‘Empire with the Lid Off’, focused on the tactics and impact of the Workers’ Empire Exhibition, a 1938 exhibition designed by the Independent Labour Party to counter the imperialist propaganda of the major Empire Exhibition held in Glasgow that year. This is research I am undertaking towards my forthcoming book with Manchester University Press, which is about exhibitions mounted in Britain from 1933 to 1953 for purposes of propaganda and protest – read more here. The conference keynote, delivered by Emerita Professor Mary Pepchinski of Technical University of Dresden, was entitled ‘Display and Disguise: Designing Pavilions for Feminine Life and Culture at American and European World and National Exhibitions, 1870-1940’. The talk built on Joan Wallach Scott’s idea of gender differentiation as inherent to modernity and explored the way that women’s pavilions were designed and created at world’s fairs to draw distinctions and divisions between remunerated professional work and domestic labour, for example.

The stimulating two days were summed up by Dr Victor Claass of host institute INHA, whose site was perfectly placed for exploring the monumental buildings and picturesque arcades of central Paris. A conference highlight was a walking tour of Paris expo sites, which started at the Petit Palais, continuing along the Seine, past the base of the Eiffel Tower and ending up on the notorious site of the 1937 face-off between Russia and Germany (pictured). This was a conference that appeared to work well for both online and in-person delegates thanks to the conspicuous hard work of CRAACE colleagues and the evolved sound and visual technologies of the Institute. The event inspired optimism about the potential for such arrangements to allow for ever more dynamic exchanges in future and reminded me of the simple pleasure of meeting like-minded colleagues in person.

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