Exhibiting the Empire
B.N. Goswamy

1. Commemorative postage stamp of the exhibition. 2. Layout of the British Empire exhibition complex. 3. A promotional poster
1. Commemorative postage stamp of the exhibition. 2. Layout of the British Empire exhibition complex. 3. A promotional poster

ALL exhibitions, one can be certain, are held with intent. But there are those that go well beyond intent: they are part of an agenda, not always or necessarily hidden. The great British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley, just outside London, in 1924 made no secret of what it was all about. Its avowed aim, in official terms, was "to stimulate trade, strengthen bonds that bind mother Country to her Sister States and Daughters, to bring into closer contact the one with each other, to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other." Whether or not the seventeen million people who visited the massive exhibition in 1924, and another nine million who came to it in 1925, saw the point of it all, might remain a question. But there is little doubt that the show was in many ways an emphatic statement, a grand event that became a mark in the mind's calendar of a whole generation.

The planners and designers of the exhibition saw the show as an attempt to narrate imperial geography and history in suburban London. The Great War, one must remember, had ended five short years earlier, and there were scars on every soul. Locked in a struggle for economic recovery, and continued great power status, Britain was more than ever dependent on its empire, but somewhat anxious to conceal that fact.

Here, as it was conceived, was an opportunity for the 'pink-red areas of the globe' - the colour which atlases used to employ at one time for demarcating areas of the empire - to come alive in a parade of imperial pride. The 'Palaces' of Industry, Engineering, Science, and Arts apart, the sprawling, 214 acre park was packed with one imposing pavilion after another, representing every single colony, dominion, and mandated territory that was part of the Empire, from India and Canada to Australia and East Africa. The visitor had the choice of entering structures that ranged from a simulation of the Taj Mahal to the mud-wall fortifications of an African village.

There was entertainment on a grand scale, from fireworks to great bands, and an endless chain of live events. And then of course there was commerce, every large company from Lipton to Wedgewood to Pears putting up its kiosks: till today, there are companies that sell to collectors around the world napkin rings and tea caddies, pin dishes and postcards, all stamped with the iconic Wembley lions.

In a fairground atmosphere, there was activity that was hectic and continuous and at times innovative. It was a show essentially of replicas. What could not be reproduced was imported and placed on display, from tropical trees to thirty full-grown ostriches, from a Burmese shrine to a mountain of New Zealand wool, from a house built with south African tiles and bricks to the re-broadcasting of Big Ben's hourly tones throughout the park. Wembley allowed visitors to inspect their empire in microcosm, either while strolling the fifteen miles of roads named by Rudyard Kipling, or riding in one of the eighty-eight carriages circling the park on the 'Never-Stop Railway'.

Never before had the British public been treated to such spectacle, or such a comprehensive survey of the peoples, cultures and economies that comprised the empire. Intriguingly, however, there were also rumblings of disquiet, and forebodings, mostly about the fragility of the empire as it was. There were people who saw a dark omen in the fact that the Wembley Exhibition was built on the ruins of one of Victorian England's failed national monuments, the Metropolitan Tower. That Tower - known as 'Watkin's Folly', after the name of its builder - conceived as a rival of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, never really provided the vista of metropolitan London that it had promised, and was unceremoniously dynamited in 1907.

But, for me, the most engaging comment on the Wembley Exhibition came from that literary icon, Virginia Woolf. Having visited the Exhibition fairly soon after it opened, Woolf, filled with a sense of disappointment and disidentification, and assailed by questions about the staying power of the empire, wrote an essay, "Thunder at Wembley".

It is a brooding piece of work, and in it she speaks of the ominous sky above the exhibition and imagines a force more powerful than empire, a force that would cause it all to tumble down. There is an apocalyptic ring to her words:

"Dust swirls down the avenues, hisses and hurries like erected cobras round the corners. Pagodas are dissolving in dust. Ferro-concrete is fallible. Colonies are perishing and dispersing in a spray of inconceivable beauty and terror which some malignant power illuminates. Ash and violent are the colours of its decay .."

Where, one wonders, did this dark vision come from, exactly at the moment in which everyone else was celebrating the great empire?