The Modernists Studies Association with its headquarters in Baltimore organises grand international conferences that each year gathers researchers, academics and students exploring the subject of modernity. This year’s 15th edition of the symposium, under the title “Everydayness and the Event” was hosted at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. About 600 delegates affiliated with various academic institutions around the world participated in 100 sessions, 12 roundtable discussions and 24 seminars that addressed the concept of modernist everyday in literature, cultural and visual studies. The time boundaries remained open with sessions spanning from the last decade of 19th century to the 1970s, while in terms of geography, modernism seemed to be represented from only selected parts of the world, with North America and Western Europe being at the epicentre of this phenomena. The existence of different modernisms went below the radar and the question about multiple, different or alternative, marginal or peripheral, and –what I personally find particularly interesting – socialist modernity remained somehow unspoken. It made me wonder whether disappearing of an “s” at the end of modernism in the title of the panel I was invited to participate was a simple typo?
“Exhibitions, Modernisms and Everyday Spectacle” organized by Dr Deborah Sugg Ryan (Falmouth University) showcased research into exhibitions from various disciplinary perspectives. I joined Deborah, Professor Jonathan Woodham (University of Brighton), Dr Alexandra Peat (Franklin College Switzerland), Jessica Kelly (Middlesex University) and Jenny Lee (University of Exeter) in a fascinating discussion that was prefaced by a brief introduction of each panellist’s research.
Jonathan Woodham’s research interests are well known to the DHS Newsletter readers. Limited to 7 minutes, Jonathan presented a fragment of his vast research into British displays at local, regional, national and international exhibitions that have been organised in the 20th century. The majority of them dealt with the promotion of particular social, political and economic agendas focusing on the leisure aspect of daily life in Britain. Deborah Sugg Ryan’s presentation provided a glimpse into her fascinating research into the history of the Ideal Home Show, the longest continuously running commercial exhibition in the world, founded in 1908. Alexandra Peat’s research explores empire exhibitions and world fairs in the broader context of modernist travel culture and modernist models of internationalism. She is particularly interested in exhibitions held between the two world wars and how they resisted or confused the official story of empire through multiple counter-narratives. The research of Jessica Kelly concentrated on the culture of modern architecture with the MARS exhibition of modern architecture (1938) and Live Architecture exhibition (1951) as comparative case studies. She examined the role those exhibitions played in promoting modernist life style concepts among the wide audience. Jenny Lee, from a cultural geographer perspective, examined Design Research Unit trade fair displays for the telegraphy company Cable and Wireless. Their stands, called “stations”, were an important element in constructing process of company’s Corporate Identity within the context of imperialism and modernism. My own presentation was developed within the youngest branch of design history concerned with Eastern European studies. I outlined three types of exhibitions presenting Polish design throughout the 20th century at home and abroad including trade fairs, anniversary exhibition and model interiors displays.
As the session evolved, the similarities between the works of all panellists become apparent. Analogies could also be noticed in the research addressing Latin American participation in world fairs presented at the earlier conference session . Despite time and geographical location, political discourses or socio-economical contexts, exhibitions are primarily concerned with the visionary ideas. It is this particularly fascinating concept of chasing modernity, following the dream, displaying the imagined, planned or envisaged. The exhibitions, trade fairs and world displays were places where schemes of the future were communicated to the public. They are often described both by its eyewitnesses and scholars as places of encounter or sites of convergence where different ideas of future meet. That establishes a firm ground for exploration of multiple visions of modernisms and the level of kinship between those originating from different political and cultural circumstances. I felt, that this reflection about the plurality of modernism, despite all the merit and richness of the MSA conference, was missing.
My participation in the conference was supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.