United Kingdom: Britain Can Make It - a design exhibition, London, 1946
The Britain Can Make It exhibition was organised by the Council of Industrial Design (CoID, Design Council after 1972) and held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, between 24 September and 31 December 1946.
It was a determined expression of the vitality of the United Kingdom's manufacturing sector following de-militarisation after the Second World War, and was a huge popular hit, attracting nearly one and a half million visitors. Indeed, so great was demand that the original closing date was extended to the end of November, and then December: a total of fourteen weeks.
This image shows the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. An impressive administrative feat in its own right, its 160 pages detail each exhibit, and provide a strong impression of the structure and content of the displays. For social, economic, local and business historians, the intriguing details of every source manufacturer, pattern name, associated designer, and registered address, are given. As such it offers the possibility of an intricate geography of national productive capacity as the country, impoverished by war, struggled to rise from its knees.
In display terms, the exhibition was a triumph of ingenuity over austerity, one with which Chief Exhibition Designer James Gardner was closely associated, putting his pre-war design experience and wartime camouflage skills to good use.
Among the large numbers of creative professionals whose talents contributed to the success of Britain Can Make It were FHK Henrion and Barbara Jones. The archives of all three individuals are held at the University of Brighton Design Archives, alongside that of the organizing body.
The exhibition was conceived by Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and became the Council of Industrial Design's flagship enterprise following its formation in 1944. Including fashion, household equipment, room settings, toys, books, posters, packaging, travel goods, new materials, as well as didactic content intended to engender a new and critically engaged public for the dazzling new post-war world of design, BCMI succeeded in encapsulating the domestic hopes and dreams of a broad span of the population, as well as the trading ambitions of many of its companies.
Selection committees established by CoID identified products for inclusion from among those submitted by manufacturers. 1,297 firms had just over 5,000 items accepted for exhibition, whilst a far larger number, 2,088, were unsuccessful and could be said to have received a useful wake-up call as to the emerging significance of design as an element of commercial viability.
The installation was captured in approximately fifteen hundred images that now make up a detailed visual resource. The Design Council Archive also contains seventeen administrative files covering the exhibition's evolution, logistics and execution. This treasure trove for researchers has already informed two volumes on Britain Can Make It (1986 and 1997), as well as informing diverse areas of scholarship and innumerable student projects. There is also an e-learning module by Elizabeth Darling called ‘Exhibiting Britain: Display and National Identity, 1946-1967'. Other publications are scheduled for the exhibition's seventieth anniversary in 2016.
The wider body of exhibition-related archival material offers detailed evidence for scholars of mid-twentieth century design history, popular and material culture, and has closely informed the development of the University of Brighton Design Archives ‘Exploring British Design' project, which seeks to transform the discoverability of design archives. Its prototype feature on Britain Can Make It demonstrates the richness of the exhibition and the network of relations among those responsible for it.