Imagining Markets workshop report, Exeter, April 2015

Imagining Markets 1st workshop, Exeter, April 2015
Report
Reed Hall1A chilly start at Reed Hall, Exeter!

 

We were delighted to welcome Imagining Markets network participants to Exeter for our first event last week. This is the first of a series of three academic workshops, with subsequent events to be held in London and Cambridge over the next year, exploring various facets of Britain’s economic culture and its relationship with key markets.
Paul Young opened proceedings with a paper exploring how the growth of the refrigerated meat and beef stock industries led to new understandings of the South American environment in Victorian literature such as the eco-romance The Purple Land and in advertising, where the Uruguay-based Leibig’s company had to compete with the imperial populism of Bovril.
Alan Booth introduced a new project exploring the development of the Rowntree business lectures, which emerged after World War I in a context of growing global economic competition to British business, and interest in new American methods of industrial psychology and management consultancy.

 

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Lawrence Black explored the changing practices of shopping in mid-twentieth century America and Britain, such as the growth of self-service, and attempts to reshape market relations through consumer activism. Groups such as the National Consumers League expressed anxiety about the conservatism of shoppers and their concern with the ‘cheapness’ of goods.
Glen O’ Hara discussed how European competitors were imagined during the 1950s and how this influenced Britain’s subsequent applications to join the EEC and perceptions of the country’s relative economic ‘decline’. Glen paid particular attention to how changing practices in compiling economic statistics and graphically representing the economy reshaped ideas of markets.

 

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The unlikely ‘Get Britain Out’ alliance in 1975, a portent for 2017 EU referendum?

 

Robert Saunders gave a taste of his project on the 1975 EEC referendum, exploring business organisations’ efforts in support of the campaign to keep Britain in the EEC. As Robert showed, in 1975 there was widespread business enthusiasm for expanding trade via the EEC, which appeared to offer opportunities to develop high-tech industries, and rationalise practices.
Piers Ludlow concluded the workshop with a plenary paper on the theme of ‘Economics and Britain’s European Choices’ which explored how government views of the UK’s most desirable economic future changed over the course of the 1950s with the rapid growth of EEC economies.
The day gave us an opportunity to discuss how various actors have politically constructed ideas about Britain’s economic future from the late nineteenth century onwards, from government, business, and civil society groups. Key themes to emerge include the importance of public debate about economic culture: the Rowntree business lectures emerged in a context of anxiety about mass suffrage and the growth of labour, consumer activism reflected anxiety about shoppers not behaving in an economically ‘rational’ fashion, and the 1975 referendum hinged on the idea of educating the public to support particular visions of Britain’s economic future. Coupled with these debates were anxieties about Britain’s world economic standing and its relative economic ‘decline’. We look forward to continuing the debates in London and Cambridge in the following months.

 

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Not so typical Exeter weather!

Buying British Across the World

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum (originally posted 03/12/13)

David Thackeray

An Empire Marketing Board poster from the late 1920s

This autumn I spoke at several universities in Australia and New Zealand on the subject of the various shopping weeks that were launched to promote Empire trade during the 1920s and 1930s. The story of the Empire Marketing Board’s efforts to develop the idea of ‘Buying Empire’ in inter-war Britain is well known, and its posters still appear regularly on the covers of books written about imperial culture. What is less well known is that the same cause was taken up with enthusiasm by a variety of organisations in the Dominions, and arguably achieved greater and more lasting prominence there than it did in Britain.

At the same time, it quickly became clear to me that the archives in England and Australasia were telling different stories. Politicians and businessmen in Wellington and Melbourne may have conceived themselves to be members of a ‘British’ trade community, but their understanding of what the future of the Empire as an economic unit should be often differed from their counterparts in London.

This 1932 poster was one of many designed for the Empire Marketing Board.  Courtesy of the Museum of London website http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/mol-84-1-890

This study forms part of a wider project on debates about Britain’s economic future since 1900, for which I have received AHRC fellowship funding for 2014-15. While Britain remains at the centre of the story, my overseas trip has reminded me of the continued dynamism of imperial studies in Australia and New Zealand. Much of the best and most innovative of this work has sought to ‘decentre’ Empire, through explorations of culture and race [1]. While ties with Britain played a central role in shaping the identity of the nascent settler colonies in the nineteenth century, we need to recognise the importance of the cultural links that Australia, for example, formed with South Africa, India, and its close neighbour, New Zealand.

Using such decentred approaches to trace the history of trade networks adds new layers to our understanding of imperial economic history. Moreover, it underlines the importance of going beyond the trade figures to understand the wider culture of the imperial economy. A ‘British’ trade identity was no doubt vital to many in the Dominions, at least up until the 1960s, but it could express itself in participation in the Toronto trades fair, crossing the Tasman to attend a meeting of Chambers of Commerce, or supporting a state-wide drive to promote Australian manufactures, as well as more literal practices of buying British (or Empire) goods. Teasing out these often uneven links of trade is a complex process but a vital one if we are to get a clearer understanding of the history of ‘buying British’ and I look forward to uncovering further perspectives when I travel to Australia and South Africa to undertake research in the New Year.

Peking University’s new History Department, built in a traditional style

My autumn trip ended with participation in a delegation of Exeter historians at Peking University, the top humanities university in China. The pace of change in Beijing and its sheer scale is hard to believe. When one of my cousins visited the city seven years ago there were two metro lines; now there are fifteen. Peking University itself has twenty thousand postgraduate students and the nine-block hotel complex where we stayed on campus is the size of a village. As for the road network, imagine London being encircled by five M25s and have you have an idea of its scale.

The colloquium provided a unique opportunity for us to discuss the wide breadth of original research being conducted in our respective departments – sex in mediaeval Spain, the revolutionary experiences of France and China, and the history of desert regions – as well as learn about our respective postgraduate programmes. We look forward to welcoming a return delegation from PKU next year, although we’re not sure we can compete with the fantastic quality of their food — but perhaps a Devon cream tea comes close.

Works Cited

[1] See for example Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s colonial past (Auckland, 2013); Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the global colour line: white men’s countries and the international challenge of racial equality(Cambridge, 2008); and Philippa Mein Smith, Peter Hempenstall and Shaun Goldfinch, Rethinking the Tasman world (Christchurch, 2009).

Imperial History at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

 

Imperial history and documentary culture at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, Exeter

 By Dr.David Thackeray and Students at the International Summer School 2014

 

Cross Posted from Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

 

In July 2014 the University of Exeter ran its second annual summer school connected to Imperial and Global History: Britain and the making of the modern world with students from Canada, China, India, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA. In this blog post students reflect on their experience working with Dr. David Thackeray from the History Department to explore archives connected to imperial history and documentary culture from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of material on the moving image in Britain, with a collection of over 75,000 items. The class was split into three groups and given a variety of film and visual culture sources to explore, then asked to record their reactions to those they found of most interest.

One group chose to discuss ‘The All Red Route Round the World’ (EXE BD 36745), an accompaniment to a series of lantern slide lectures produced in the early twentieth century depicting a variety of views across the British Empire. They note that it was a long-standing practice for British imperial territory belonging to be marked on a map in red. ‘This small pamphlet focuses on the idea that the world could be traversed without ever leaving the Empire. The author seems to brag about the fact that the sun never sets on British-controlled territory. Upon examination of the materials, we came to the conclusion that the lectures were primarily produced for entertainment purposes. The lantern slides boast about the scale of the Empire and introduce readers to the various cultures and peoples encompassed in British territory. These lectures may also serve to shock the public with their depictions of tribal, naked and supposedly less ‘civilised’ peoples’ living under the British flag’.

The documentary film of the ‘Cape to Cairo’ trans-Africa exhibition of 1924 provided the focus for the second group, who explored the various means by which the film was publicised including a book (EXE BD 11598) and cinema souvenir pamphlet (EXE BD 18477). Xiaohan Wang notes how such documentaries often focused on the exoticism of African life and its distance from the culture of the metropole and the British traveller. ‘Pictures in the booklet document indigenous Africans’ daily life, contrasting it with that of the travellers’ who commonly came from elite backgrounds. The well-dressed Europeans are commonly placed in the centre of the accompanying pictures surrounded by Africans living in supposedly primitive conditions’.

 

 

Our final sources for discussion are The Mystic Orient (EXE BD 00025), a booklet produced to promote a documentary produced by the anthropologist Dr. George Dorsey depicting his explorations in Japan, China, India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a journey he claims reached “parts of the world where white men have seldom, if ever, visited”, and Through Romantic India (EXE BD 18476) a booklet which accompanied a documentary film and lecture from 1922 by renowned American Journalist Lowell Thomas. The students discussed the problems of whether we can view these sources as indicators of an Orientalist mindset. This approach seems to be more apparent in the latter booklet which ‘clearly deals with cultural and racial differences from a hierarchical perspective. Indian culture is depicted as brutal and backwards, but also romantic, as opposed to ‘civilised’ Britain’. The booklet includes a picture of two Indian men sitting on a needle bed, and has the following jaunty description: ‘Holy men ready or a siesta on their beds of sharp iron spikes’.

 

 

The class provided students with an opportunity to explore the insights that documentary film culture can provide into Britons’ historical interaction with Empire. While their conclusions give a rather sobering insight into aspects of imperial culture which bring to mind the old adage- ‘it’s a good thing the sun never set on the empire- because the Brits clearly can’t be trusted at night’- students appreciated what for many of them was their first opportunity to work in an archive.

The museum has a rich collection of material on the British Empire, as optical entertainment was frequently used as a propaganda source and to bring the wider world to the British public. It is used frequently for teaching in History and English at the University.

Contributors: Angela Banks, Kelly Cave, Jessica Deters, Caroline Menu, Daniel Scherer, Xiaohan Wang, Henrik Zimmermann