The World Comes to Wembley: Modernist Literature and the Culture of Exhibition

Dr Alexandra Peat
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Rudyard Kipling, the most celebrated author of the British Empire, had the honour of naming the streets in the 1924 British Empire exhibition only for Virginia Woolf to depict the apocalyptic destruction of those same streets in her essay “Thunder at Wembley” (1924). This paper explores the varying responses to the 1924 Wembley exhibition by authors such as Kipling, Woolf, and Henry James, and also in contemporary journals like The Dial. I argue that in reaction to the Empire Exhibition, modernist writers imagined radically new ways to represent global relations.

Previous studies of the culture of Empire Exhibitions have been strongly dedicated to critiques of imperialism. While these exhibitions, of course, partly lent themselves to an imperialist agenda, I am also interested in how exhibitions contributed to an increasingly democratised museum culture. My paper engages with current theories of globalization, including John Tomlinson’s notion of complex connectivity, David Held’s discussion of democracy and global order, and Roland Robertson’s notion of glocalization. Exhibitions are particularly fertile ground for studying global flows; as exhibitions began to mix and merge local identities with an element of the global, they became places where local cultures could gain respect and recognition on the global stage.

The global dynamics of modernist literature can, I argue, be better perceived and understood through the lens of exhibition culture. By “reading” the cultural significance of the world’s fair or Empire Exhibition, I aim to find a way into re-reading modernist literature, and, particularly, to disrupt the received notion that modernism was always and irrevocably in opposition to mass culture. By examining the representation of world’s fairs and Empire Exhibitions in contemporary literature, I will show the links between exhibition culture and the modernist attempt to understand, articulate, and represent a global imaginary.

Keywords: Literature, Modernism, World's Fair, Empire Exhibition, Museum Culture, Globalism
Stream: Constructing Art Worlds, Meaning and Representation
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr Alexandra Peat

Instructor, Department of English, University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Alexandra Peat researches and teaches at the University of Toronto. Her main areas of interest are modernist and postcolonial literature. She has published essays and delivered conference papers on such authors as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Claude McKay. She recently completed her doctoral dissertation, entitled "Secular Modernism and the Sacred Journey"; this study explores material and metaphorical journeys in modernist travel fiction. She is currently working on a book-length interdisciplinary study of World's Fair or Empire Exhibtions in the modernist era.

Ref: A06P0497