This was a remarkable event, one of the largest and most impressive International exhibitions ever held in this country and the most comprehensive display of Empire that the country ever mustered. Held at Wembley on a site of over 200 acres this was a wonderfully impressive display. Initially intended to be held before the First World War, hostilities intervened and the plans were revived in 1920 with the aim of securing an increasingly fragile Empire and boosting an economy in decline and help limit growing unemployment following demobilization.
Synonymous with the sports stadium, Wembley had originally been considered a suitable site for an upmarket garden suburb, but the Exhibition took priority. The proximity to London, the good rail links and plenty of space, it was a perfect site for the new exhibition grounds. With a new national sports stadium as the centrepiece, known until the 1950’s as the Empire Stadium, and becoming the much loved venue for Cup Finals and other events for many years to come. The exhibition site contained the usual array of elaborate buildings, the Palace of Industry and Palace of Engineering being the two largest buildings in the world at the time. The rest of the site contained pavilions from the 56 colonies and dominions that took part as well as numerous commercial and supporting kiosks and buildings, large lakes, parks, a 47 acre funfair and cafes. Interestingly the only two countries that chose not to take part were Gibraltar and Ireland.
Visited by over 27 million visitors the exhibition had no end of surprising and elaborate displays to entertain the crowds. Alongside the enormous exhibition halls there was a full scale coal mine, a church, the Queen’s Dolls House designed by Edwin Lutyens, a replica of the recently discovered tomb of Tutankhamen and most surprisingly a full size representation of the Prince of Wales in butter in the Canadian pavilion.
This talk will consider the development of the exhibition from proposal in 1910 to the opening ceremony in 1924 with the first ever broadcast address by a head of state. There will be some consideration of the motivation of the key characters involved, an analysis of the many different buildings will be undertaken using period images. One of the most interesting elements of this talk is devoted to the representation of Empire. We will examine the numerous displays of peoples from around the world in enclosures full of buildings loosely imitating a British understanding of their own indigenous architecture. This appears bizarre at best to our eyes, however in an age before mass tourism and foreign travel, other than to fight wars, this was the standard way of ‘displaying’ foreign peoples, a practice which is fascinating to examine and understand in the context of the 1920’s and an increasingly fragile British Empire. We can only wonder at the reaction of these ‘human exhibits’ from far off lands to their new homes in West London.
I find events of this time fascinating, Britain and the Empire displayed as it wanted the world to see it. I love exploring the Wembley exhibition with groups of all sorts and the debates around Empire and display that can result.