Written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer
Curators would agree that when an exhibition or display is not dedicated to an upcoming anniversary it allows a greater freedom for manoeuvre. Where brainstorming sessions can embrace lateral thinking rather than a more linear approach. Ideally you want to showcase a document range that reflects different aspects of your collections. A singular subject matter cannot necessarily deliver these aspirations thus you look beyond this for a narrative framework that encourages a broader choice.
So, which road did we take to fulfil this brief?
In this blog I’ll reveal how we made the ‘Parliament & The 50's’ Royal Gallery Display.
SEVEN YEAR ITCH
Sometimes to go forward you must look back. A retrospective of a decade is a tried and trusted template to connect an array of items that will eventually be assembled into an accessible historical journey. In 2016 the Archives put together a fantastic Royal Gallery Display exploring Parliamentary records marking significant moments of the swinging sixties, that included the infamous 1963 Denning Report regarding the Profumo Affair. Seven years on, why not go down a similar route?
That decision was the easy part - now we had to source a decade comprehensively covered within the archives. Ten display case contenders are the premium, with maybe a couple having iconic status. The roaring twenties missed the boat, the turbulent seventies didn’t quite fit the bill. However, all bets were off once the fifties came under consideration. A bounty of possibilities was found and to quote a term from the era ‘we’d never had it so good’.
Picture the scene – I’m conducting a Behind the Scenes Tour of the Archives, presenting assorted storied documents in the Victoria Tower. A favourite of mine is a Latin scribed framed Home Office Death Sentences list dated 1955 detailing the execution of Ruth Ellis. An inquisitive member of the group notices that you can remove the top of the ornate frame and take out the certificate for closer inspection – this exchange was the genesis for a Eureka Moment.
When researching for a blog on Sydney Silverman MP I realised how the socially conscious campaign for the Abolition of the Death Penalty had divided opinion in the fifties. I’d earmarked this episode featuring in the display via a Royal Commission Report. Then a light bulb went off in my head to change track by utilising the Death Sentences list and once it was established that it fitted in the display case cue a collective YES!
NATIONAL RECORD STORE DAY
As a lover of music and scheduler of our social media platforms I’d been on the look-out for a little archival gem to mark the annual UK National Record Store Day. All my Christmases came true when I discovered a pristine vinyl LP released in 1954 celebrating Winston Churchill’s 80th birthday titled His Finest Hour. Containing readings of his most notable speeches by such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, backed by a complimentary orchestral fare.
Churchill’s retirement from office a year later symbolised a changing of the guard on the governmental frontline that was worthy of a coveted spot in the display. The commemorative album bedecked with ‘V for Victory’ motifs was a dead cert to make the final cut. We’d hoped to use both the decorative album cover and its vinyl companion, but spatial issues put the blockers on that and after some deliberation the former won the day.
A GAPING HOLE
Everything was going swimmingly with first panel preparation. The Festival of Britain brought a uber-nostalgic feel to proceedings, and we had combined an invitation to the St Paul’s Cathedral Service that opened the event coupled by a guide for the House of Commons festival-inspired History of Parliament exhibition. Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation was pride of place as was Churchill’s retirement. Yet a gaping hole sat in the middle of the lay-out – curatorial radio silence…
Time to dig out the history books to find a specific angle to fill the breach. Better late than never, television came to our rescue. The commercialisation of the sector caused tremendous consternation in the mid-fifties mainly expressed by BBC grandee Lord Reith. Herbert Samuel dutifully retained several pamphlets on the controversial proposals in his personal papers and thankfully one of those, illustrated with a wonderfully retro television set sketch, put the dilemma to bed.
LEST WE FORGET
By the halfway stage our chief concern regarded what to leave out. A good problem to have, though nobody was resting on their laurels. From the preliminary selection it was agreed that the 1957 Wolfenden Report that recommended decriminalising male homosexuality and the Ghana Independence Act of the same year had to be represented. This double header meant the Suez Crisis was squeezed out to be replaced by the birth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Plenty of similar big hitters had to remain on the bench. The end of rationing pivotal in the curtailing of post-war austerity looked good to go until the requisite Statutory Order proved too large for its allocation. Also, this was the perfect opportunity for retelling the story behind female peers’ induction into the House of Lords via the 1958 Life Peerages Act. Though ticking a lot of boxes, the competition for places was too fierce.
PICKING THAT PERFECT COLOUR
Doesn’t it always seem the initial idea that comes to fruition will end up the best option in the long run? From the onset we’d considered using for the display cases sub-titles – Changing Times followed by Changing Minds. The somewhat lack of originality made us doubt ourselves and we dived deep into fifties cultural references to seek alternatives. Still nothing could match the pair for instant relatability as we realised that simplicity is the key.
Design collaborators beware… there was a team member who saw himself as something of a colour specialist. As we started roundtable discussions, I couldn’t help myself piping up with my own agenda on how the display panel boards should look. Extolling positive vibes emanating from a progressive decade I put on a pedestal pinks and yellows. Even excruciatingly dropping into conversation the Russian poster designer Alexander Rodchenko…
Did I succeed with my promptings? See below.
All Parliamentary Archives Royal Gallery displays can be seen on Parliament’s line of route tour. Parliament and the 50's is on display from December 2023 to March 2024. The display was curated by Richard Ward and Danielle Wiles. Graphic Design by the House of Commons Design Team.