Diane Bilbey (eds), Britain Can Make It: The 1946 Exhibition of Modern Design (London: Paul Holberton, 2019)
Zachary Hope, University of Chicago
The social, cultural, and historical tensions presented by the 1946 Britain Can Make It (BCMI) exhibition, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, are apparent in the many turnings of its name. Appropriating the mutual (and usefully mythic) resilience demonstrated by ‘Britain can take it,’ a ubiquitous wartime refrain itself taken from the title of a state-sponsored documentary, BCMI attempts to turn recent wartime experience on the Home Front into grounds for a postwar, market-based consensus that could accomplish the transition from wartime to peacetime. Yet a new book on BCMI, titled Britain Can Make It: The 1946 Exhibition of Modern Design (2019), edited by Diane Bilbey, also provides evidence of occasions when public response to the popular exhibition, which averaged a remarkable 20,000 visitors each day, took exception to the all-consensualising national capability proclaimed by its given name. Descriptive and pictorial reconstructions and analyses of the spaces within the exhibition give specific examples of a more general dissensus by paying consistent attention to the different ways in which individual displays were received by the visiting public. Again, however, one of Bilbey’s own contributions, on ‘Naming the Exhibition,’ aptly summarises these responses in the subsequent corruptions of BCMI’s name (p. 39). If Britain can make it, which is itself contested—‘Can Britain Make It?’ asks Leslie Illingworth in a cartoon for Punch—it is also the case that ‘Britain Can’t Have It’ because, citing the Evening Standard, ‘Britons can’t buy it’ (p. 42). Taking the force of its persuasion from prior solidarities, BCMI turns toward a post-austerity future that remains frustrated by the continuing austerity of the postwar present. Indeed, this dissatisfaction is revealed within the very marketplace of a consumer culture that should be the means of refashioning a solidarity previously ensured by imperatives of national wartime production. For Britons, continues the Evening Standard, ‘Britain Can Make It is the most frustrating show on earth’ (p. 43).
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