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Clarkson, Verity:

 ‘Embassy exhibitions’ and national identities: the organisation and reception of Eastern European exhibitions in Cold War Britain

The exhibition – be it an international Expo, a trade fair or a museum show  - became a significant location for East-West cultural exchange during the Cold War.  From the late 1950s onwards, exhibitions from European countries on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain were staged in many western nations, including Britain. Frequently, these were shows that displayed a broad chronological sweep of historical and artistic ‘treasures’ couched in the language of national identities. The British Foreign Office and British Council viewed them as an unavoidable consequence of Cultural Agreements: by accepting such shows, reciprocal British exhibitions in the Eastern Bloc demonstrating the culture and artistic freedoms of the West were facilitated.

Throughout the 1960s, British museums, galleries and the Arts Council of Great Britain collaborated with eastern European cultural institutions in the organisation of exhibitions. Some were mere ‘embassy exhibitions’: their purpose was purely diplomatic and their public appeal could be limited. Yet there were also popular exhibitions which aroused great critical response, provoking discussions of national character and the ‘western-ness’ of particular nations of eastern Europe.
This paper examines the organisation and reception of these varied exhibitions in Britain. It argues that they provided a series of shifting, temporary public spaces in which politically charged cultural artefacts from countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Romania were received, negotiated and responded to in a Cold War context. It explores the degree of collaboration between British and eastern European organisers and the professional friendships which developed across the Iron Curtain. It highlights British involvement in the wider cultural Cold War and the complexity and variety of British attitudes to the individual countries of eastern Europe. While some exhibitions could be dismissed as homogenously conforming to a perceived stereotype of ‘eastern Europe’, others were recognised as celebrating distinct national identities; identities that could be politically ambiguous during the Cold War.

Saturday 31 Oct 12.00-13.30 SESSION 8
Panel: Exhibitions and the Performing Arts