Energy Narratives in Past Energy Exhibitions

In our latest blog, Dr Hiroki Shin, Vice-Chancellor Illuminate Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, discusses how museum exhibitions have historically presented energy narratives:

The recent news on California wildfires has been a vivid reminder that a concerted response to climate change is becoming ever more urgent, despite a temporary dip in global greenhouse gas emissions due to the decline in international travel and forced confinement measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst the ongoing world health crisis, the talk of green recovery is already widespread. Green recovery, as an attempt to shift the course of the economy onto a sustainable path in a way that may be unimaginable in normal times, is highly relevant to the culture and heritage sectors, which have been directly hit by closure of public spaces and restrictions on mass gatherings. For museums, green recovery presents an opportunity not only to accelerate a decarbonisation of their everyday operations but also to engage more fully with the cultural shift that climate adaptation entails.

Over the last three decades, climate change has gradually entered public cultural domains. Museums were initially cautious in introducing exhibitions about climate change, which was considered a highly politicised subject. However, with the mounting scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change, pioneering exhibitions such as the American Museum of Natural History’s Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (1992) started to address what was increasingly recognised as a global challenge. According to the Museums & Climate Change Network website, which lists over 70 climate change exhibitions that have been mounted since 1992, climate change has become a major theme of exhibitions across countries, especially in the 2010s, one such example being the Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum, London (2010).[1]

Atmosphere gallery, Science Museum, London.

Among the diverse challenges that the climate crisis poses to museums, this blog entry contemplates the intellectual challenge of transforming the energy narratives that are presented in museums. Implicitly or explicitly, science-themed museums have long maintained the narrative of energy-intensive progress in their public offerings. In this narrative, great technological innovations and achievements – from the steam engine, the self-combustion engine and the gas turbine to the jet engine – were taken as indicative of humankind’s increasing control over the earth’s energy resources, bringing with it economic growth and a rising standard of living and social well-being. In today’s age of decarbonisation, the idea of energy-intensive progress is being strongly contested, and a number of museums have begun exploring alternative ways of talking about energy’s past, present and future. For instance, at the exhibition Climate, the Experiment with Planet Earth at the Deutsches Museum (2002), visitors were told that coal-driven industrialisation ushered in the climate problem.[2] The association between historical industrialisation and the climate problem has now become commonplace, but in the early 2000s museum context, the statement marked a drastic departure from the conventional narrative of technological progress. The story of energy-intensive modernity is losing its appeal to an increasing proportion of museum audiences, who associate fossil fuel more with its negative consequences than with a bright future. Notwithstanding, chronologically sequenced stories around the development of carbon fuel technology remain the standard narrative style in science-themed museums, which is becoming increasingly at odds with the growing visibility of climate-related topics.

How has the narrative of energy-intensive progress come to be so firmly entrenched in museums? According to historian of technology David Nye, it was in the expositions, world’s fairs and museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the connection between the idea of technological progress and energy technology found its cultural expression in popular media. No technology could better represent the utopian vision of the future that was afforded by the diffusion and intensified use of modern energy than electricity (note that back then, electricity was mostly generated by burning coal). In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, electricity came to the centre stage in a series of high-profile international exhibitions, from the Paris Exposition of Electricity (1881) to the Chicago World’s Fair (1893). The inventions of the electric lamp and the telephone were soon followed by a host of electrical applications in factory production, transport, entertainment and domestic life. By the early twentieth century, as Nye remarks, electricity had become ‘a visible correlative for the ideology of progress’.[3] In these exhibitions, electricity was not just a subject matter for display, but an integral part of the very technology of exhibition. For instance, the rapid succession of development in electrical illumination from the arc light, incandescent light, floodlight and neon light made exhibition designers realise that variable artificial lighting allowed them to manipulate visitors’ gaze and create special effects by highlighting objects, defining perspectives and creating ambience. Electric illumination, sound recording, moving displays and film projection ushered in the age of multi-media display in modern exhibitions, and they were all grounded upon – and suggestive of – energy-intensive technological progress.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago Ill.: a pavilion.
Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-51872.

The belief in carbon-driven progress can equally be found in early ‘environmental’ exhibitions. In November 1881, a smoke abatement exhibition opened in South Kensington, London. The driving force of the exhibition was two social reformers, Ernest Hart and Octavia Hill, who were supported by a group of engineers, scientists, medical experts and public health campaigners such as Edwin Chadwick and Edward Frankland. The exhibition brought the problem of atmospheric pollution and smoke-caused health hazards to the public cultural domain by drawing upon the format of the public exhibition. Although the event, which attracted 116,000 visitors, paved the way for organised anti-smoke campaigns (which eventually led to the clean air legislation of the 1950s), it came short of challenging the fundamental issue of environmental degradation originating from fossil fuel use. The core message of the exhibition was that atmospheric pollution from industrial and domestic coal consumption could be sufficiently addressed by the use of what contemporaries called ‘smokeless’ fuel and technology, the prime example of which was the concentrated production of gas and coke at gasworks that were built away from the city centre. As Peter Thorsheim argues, the technological solutions presented by smoke abatement campaigners were simply to transfer one form of pollution to another, a message particularly welcomed by the gas industry, which was vying to replace house coal in the domestic fuel market; for the organisers and the nearly 230 exhibitors that presented their smoke abatement innovations in the exhibition took for granted an energy-intensive future.[4]

Wembley British Empire Exhibition, an elevated view of exterior of the Coal Mine exhibit (1924).
London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (Collage: the London Picture Archive, ref 283603).

The assumption that future generations would be able to harness ever greater amounts of energy resources was implicit in early discussions on energy resource conservation. The British Empire Exhibition, held in Wembley Park, London, in 1924–1925 when European nations were still reeling from the devastation of the First World War, showed a curious mix of optimism and concern about the world’s energy reserves. Along with new technological inventions – the British gas industry organised a display on ‘smoke abatement and byproducts’ – the exhibition presented to its visitors the vast resources of Britain and its dominions. Underlining coal’s symbolic status as ‘the chief source of our national wealth’, the exhibition had ‘Wembley’s own coal mine, a full-size colliery, with complete underground workings and head gear’, suggesting that the empire had both the rich energy reserves and the means to recover them.[5] The event’s generally optimistic future projection was not without concerns stemming from the uncertainty regarding future energy availability. Experts knew well, by the 1920s, that coal was hardly an unlimited resource, even for coal-rich nations like Britain. The increasing realisation of global resource problems was manifested in the inaugural meeting of the World Power Conference (WPC), which was organised as a part of the British Empire Exhibition. This was ‘the first international conference to consider the further development, conservation, and most economical use of the power resources of the world’, establishing an international platform for energy experts to discuss energy problems based on a large-scale survey on the world’s energy resources.[6] Faced with accelerating industrialisation and energy consumption in the world, energy experts present at the conference realised that what seemed to be an abundant energy reserve might run out much more quickly than they had previously imagined. In the exhibition and the WPC, an abundant energy future was still in sight, but it stood on tenuous ground.

Resource conservation took on a completely different meaning during the Second World War. In Britain’s wartime exhibitions, the belief in an abundant energy future was temporarily suspended, being replaced by an acknowledgment of the need for self-imposed resource constraints that were vital for the survival of the nation. As with other nations engaged in the war, energy conservation was an urgent issue for the British government, as fossil fuel – coal and oil – was essential to maintain its war machine. As part of the national drive for fuel economy, the Ministry of Information organised a major exhibition entitled Battle for Fuel in October 1942, which opened at Dorland Hall, London, and subsequently toured the country, with installations in Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow. The exhibition appealed to the public to curb their fuel consumption to support Britain’s war effort, explaining that every piece of coal saved in the domestic household contributed to manufacturing weapons for soldiers and driving tanks, warships and fighter planes. Visitors were given practical advice on fuel saving with displays of appliances, visual panels, information films and at an enquiry bureau and cooking demonstrations that provided instructions, for instance, for how to cook Brussels sprouts and shredded cabbage in ten minutes with a minimum use of gas.

Battle for Fuel Exhibition, Dorland Hall, London, 1942.
© Imperial War Museum, D 10635 (left), D 10632 (top right), D 10633 (bottom right).

Despite the austerity of its theme, the exhibition turned out to be a popular event, attracting 750,000 visitors, an impressive figure for an exhibition held at the height of a major military conflict. A visitor to the Manchester installation remarked that it was ‘a gaily coloured and cheerful affair – quite different from any of the MoI exhibitions’, and it featured cartoons, instructive rhymes and comical films.[7] Nevertheless, visitors, who were confronted with questions written on large banners such as ‘Are You a Fuel Saver?’, ‘Comfort or Guns?’ and ‘Warmth or Victory?’, clearly got the message – the Mancunian visitor kept the note that ‘bathing in water up to the neck’ was to be avoided. There was no hint of a bright energy future; instead, the exhibition’s strong message was that energy saving was a civic duty. At the exhibition opening in Manchester, Commander King-Hall, stated that energy saving was ‘one of the greatest tests ever put upon the voluntary system in Great Britain, because it was a direct challenge to every citizen to prove to friends, oneself, and the enemy that for the sake of the free way of life we could do all things necessary for victory and because it provided everyone inescapably with a daily and continuing opportunity of linking himself through some form of self-sacrifice with the men of the fighting forces’.[8]

If we look back from the age of climate crisis in the twenty-first century, the propaganda during the total war is not entirely foreign to us. Many of the practical messages presented at the Battle for Fuel exhibition resonate with the recent call for ‘smart’ energy consumption – the exhibition was accompanied by a national campaign to encourage energy users to read their gas and electricity meters to regulate their energy use. Reviving wartime propaganda may not be an appropriate or effective strategy to tackle the climate crisis today (there is, in fact, ongoing scholarly debate about the policy relevance of wartime mobilisation strategy for climate change action)[9], but studying past exhibitions, both progressive and non-progressive, can help us imagine an alternative mode of talking about energy without resorting to the naïve hope of an abundant and carefree energy future. Simon Bushell et al., in their recent article advocating ‘a good strategic narrative’ for transforming the public attitude towards climate change, identified wartime campaigns such as the ‘Dig for Victory’ – another Ministry of Information wartime propaganda effort – as an exemplar of community-level mobilisation. They argued that the memorable wartime propaganda underscored the crucial importance of creating a powerful narrative that would drive community-level involvement ‘to achieving the behaviour changes climate change mitigation requires’.[10] The Battle for Fuel campaign had an equally effective narrative in wartime Britain on energy conservation, a topic of direct relevance to today’s climate crisis.

The Battle for Fuel was by no means an isolated example of exhibitions presenting less energy-intense visions of society. Topics such as energy conservation, peak oil, resource depletion, energy crises, the ‘limits to growth’ and green futures appeared in public exhibitions and museums in the late twentieth century, although they were largely overshadowed by the more prevalent theme of carbon-driven progress. Rediscovering the alternative visions in past exhibitions can help us imagine a new mode of talking about past technological development and alternative energy futures – an issue that any serious discussion on green recovery for the museum sector needs to confront. The existence of alternative narratives in past exhibitions also serves as a testimony to the fact that museums already have the capacity to challenge what seems to be a deeply entrenched narrative of energy-intensive visions in public culture.


[1] https://mccnetwork.org/exhibitions

[2] Nature, 24 April 2003. Accessed 28 October 2020 at doi:10.1038/news030421-4.

[3] David Nye, ‘Electrifying Expositions, 1880–1939’, in Robert Rydell and Nacy Gwinn (eds.), Fair Representations: World’s Fairs and the Modern World (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994), p. 143.

[4] Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006), ch. 9.

[5] G. C. Lawrence (ed.), British Empire Exhibition, 1925: Official Guide (London, 1925), p. 110.

[6] ‘World’s Power Resources’, The Times, 1 July 1924. On the World Power Conference, see R. Wright, H. Shin and F. Trentmann, Power, Energy and International Cooperation: A History of the World Energy Council, 1923-2018 (Oekom, 2019).

[7] ‘Manchester Fuel Economy Exhibition’, 25 November 1942, TC68 Fuel, 1937–47, Mass Observation Archive, SxMOA1/2/68/3/B.

[8] ‘Critical Phase in the Battle for Fuel’, The Guardian, 24 November 1942.

[9] For example, Laurence Deilna and Mark Diesendorf, ‘Is Wartime Mobilisation a Suitable Policy Model for Rapid National Climate Mitigation?’, Energy Policy 58 (2013), pp. 371–80.

[10] Simon Bushell, Géraldine Buisson, Mark Workman, Thomas Colley, ‘Strategic Narratives in Climate Change: Towards a Unifying Narrative to Address the Action Gap on Climate Change’, Energy Research & Social Science 28 (2017), p. 47.

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