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British Festivals

Festivals are spectacular public events for mass audiences. It can be highly revealing to consider how they represent national identity.

Festivals are spectacular public events for mass audiences. It can be highly revealing to consider how they represent national identity. The Great Exhibition was an international trade fair that took place in 1851. It was an expression of Britain’s industrial and imperial power. At its height, this was the largest empire in history, holding sway over one-quarter of the world's population and almost a quarter of the Earth's total land area. At the Great Exhibition, all the produce of the Empire was exhibited under one roof.

The exhibition was intended to demonstrate British superiority in design, but characteristic pieces show an obsession with decoration. The ornament obscures the form. To our eyes they often appear hideously over-decorated and impractical. Nevertheless, the Great Exhibition was one of the first mass spectacles of the modern age and established the template for today’s mass culture.

A spectacular event that occurred one hundred years after the Great Exhibition was the Festival of Britain of 1951. This provides a snapshot of Britain in the mid 20th century. Britain was devastated by the Second World War and the Empire was in decline. Well into the 1950s Britain was still immersed in post-war austerity: the urban landscape was scarred by bomb damage, rationing was still in force and the economy was in ruins.

To show the way forward the government held an exhibition on the South Bank of the River Thames. Gerald Barry described it as a ‘tonic to the nation’. The Festival was organised by Clement Atlee’s Labour government that took over after the war and it was full of socialist idealism for a new democratic, progressive society.

Most of the buildings were in the Modernist style. Modernism had been controversial in Britain, but in this new climate of optimism, it was finally accepted. Misha Black said that the Festival ‘suddenly proved that Modern Architecture with a capital M was in fact acceptable.’

The Dome of Discovery and the Skylon made use of science-fiction iconography. The Festival Pattern Group looked around for a modern source of imagery and found that science provided inspiration. Microscopic images of crystals and chemicals provided a range of dynamic, abstract patterns that were inherently modern because they were generated by new sciences like crystallography.

In conclusion, the Great Exhibition was a celebration of Britain’s industrial and imperial power during the Victorian era. A century later, Festival of Britain revealed a Britain trying to recover from the war and adjusting to the loss of its empire. The Festival of Britain promised a bright new future of modern technology and Modernist design.


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Comments (5)
Ranked #4 in History

Vey interesting article! I'm always especially interested in the Great Exhibition and how forward-looking it was.

Ranked #13 in History

Great to know these festivals my friend, bookmarked this one to be ready for another quiz, a blessed New Year Michael.

Ranked #35 in History

well done Michael

Happy new year, buddy! Our festivals here are more of merry-making and colors.

Ranked #22 in History

interesting read