‘Come and see the Empire by the All Red Route!’

Historical Geography Reading Group, 24/10/12

Session 2, Semester 1

Reading: Sarah Britton (2010) ‘Come and see the Empire by the All Red Route!’: Anti-Imperialism and Exhibitions in Interwar Britain

The reading group met today to discuss Sarah Britton’s paper on anti-imperialism and exhibitions in interwar Britain. Britton’s work highlights a West African student protest and a working conditions campaign against the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley before moving on to consider the 1938 Worker’s Exhibition in Glasgow which coincided with the Empire Exhibition also in the city. She provides a fascinating insight into different forms of resistance against the exhibition tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The three forms of protest are positioned against the two largest exhibitions in British history which had a combined cost of approximately £31million. Her unique style effectively works across a 14 year time period and between two distanced UK cities, raising key questions regarding the historical geographies of empire exhibition culture. Our own discussion of the text focused on the local circumstances of the exhibitions, the contrasting forms of protest used, possible implications for writing a ‘history from below’ and some speculation on the links of these histories to the present day and ‘mega-event’/festival culture.

Firstly we explored the three examples of resistance which raised different questions regarding the empire exhibitions. The West African Student protest exposed the treatment of human exhibits and directly opposed the representation of African culture provided by local journalists. We discussed the explicitly apolitical stance of the union and considered the forms of solidarity developed, and perhaps those underdeveloped, within the student group. The workers conditions movement highlighted key problems within the actual environments in which exhibition staff would work. Interestingly though, the position of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) regarding the exhibition remained fairly ambiguous and failed to provide a sustained critique of the imperial and colonial basis of the exhibition. In contrast, the Worker’s Exhibition in Glasgow posed a direct ‘attack’ on the imperialism of the 1938 exhibition. This example was particularly interesting given its local significance and led to substantial discussion regarding how Glasgow’s history is framed and continually retold. Some of the group felt that Britton could have provided more information on the significance of the political figures involved in the Glasgow exhibition (George Padmore, James Maxton & Ethel Manning) and that the spatial connections made between these political actors and groups could have been explored further.

The tensions of writing a ‘history from below’ or simply the fragmented nature of historical enquiry also came through in our discussion of the paper. Some felt that it was hard to fully comprehend the scale of the worker’s exhibition without greater detail of the content within the exhibition itself. Whilst others felt the explicitly political nature of the exhibition and the links it forged with the Independent Labour Party provided substantial evidence for its significance. This led to debates over how we choose to write ‘marginal’ or ‘minor’ histories and the weight writers give to certain material. These debates were applicable to many of our research interests and raised key questions over how we, as researchers, frame and present historical material.

Towards the end of the meeting the group moved on to the links between this research and the debates regarding ‘mega events’ such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the numerous festivals held across the UK. In many ways this article raised issues still extremely relevant to present day exhibitions and events, highlighting the continual need to think critically about how events are justified and practiced. The exhibitions considered by Britton were justified through ‘the promise of boosting tourism, raising the civic profile and increasing trade and industry’, which in many ways parallel with the aims of more recent events, but her article and our discussions highlights how these ideals were not experienced by all.


Thanks to all that attended the group and for the cakes baked by Mhairi!!


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