This week, the making of the Festival of Britain, as seen in the Archive of archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes at the University of Bradford. The Festival, which took place in London in 1951, was a “people’s show” celebrating Britain’s cultural and industrial achievements; it is often seen as marking the end of post-war austerity and the beginnings of 1950s design.
Here is the medal of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.), awarded to Jacquetta Hawkes in the 1952 New Year Honours. She received it for her successful work as archaeology advisor to the Festival, in particular designing the opening section of an exhibition on the South Bank. This told the story of Britain and its people, from the Old Stone Age to the present day.
Designing this was no easy task. Jacquetta’s Archive at the University of Bradford contains a large wodge of correspondence documenting three years of work. The displays had to be both historically/archaeologically accurate and appropriate for the exhibition.
Fortunately, Jacquetta was ideal for the job. She had academic credibility and knowledge, plus a talent for conveying “the thrill of archaeological excavation to a non-specialist audience, using almost theatrical aplomb” (as her biographer, Christine Finn, comments). Jacquetta was also good at getting things done and, having been a civil servant during the Second World War, knew how to work with government departments. She had the confidence to stand up for what she felt would work in her display although also to compromise where necessary.
The Archive shows how Jacquetta considered all aspects of exhibition design: the overall presentation of the displays, the impression they would make on their audience, how they would fit into the proposed spaces, and the archaeological detail used e.g. an extensive discussion on chariot harness. Her approach is recognisable to everyone exhibiting heritage materials today. She was aiming for something visually strong, with minimal words, “neither abstract nor austere”, with a sense of “mystery and drama” and keeping the overall story in mind throughout.
I particularly like a letter to Stuart Piggott in which she explains that there will be “some good, showy stuff such as the Sutton Hoo ship in a purple light …” but the “hard core” of the exhibition would be family groups for each period (like the one above) which “can have some quiet occupation, but nothing very assertive”. This quiet humour and detachment is very typical of Jacquetta’s correspondence and I think helped her to cope with the pressures of this high profile project.