Researching Through Objects: The North-East Coast Exhibitions

What can we learn about yourselves, and our relationship with History, by studying throw-away souvenir tourist items?

East Coast Industries (poster) by Frank Henry Mason is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

How do we approach the question of historical leisure experiences and domestic consumer items which we now find at best insignificant, or at worst deeply offensive or problematic? How should we display commemorate such events?

In the coming months, I will be posting regularly on the subject of a now largely forgotten public event, which took part in the north-east of England in the late 1920s: the Great North East Coast Exhibition.

Don’t worry if you have never heard of it. It doesn’t really have a high public profile in its host city of Newcastle upon Tyne any more. This is in spite of it fundamentally reshaped the layout of one part of the town and also aiding the foundation of Newcastle’s much-loved Discovery Science Museum. (Which, by the way, I strongly recommend a visit to if you happened to be in Newcastle area – great fun for kids and home to the Tyne and Wear Archive Service). The event’s predecessor, which took place in the coastal region of Tynemouth in the late 19th century, has even less of a contemporary profile.

So why research events like these now? What can this one-off event over 90 years ago tell us about the politics of leisure and commemoration?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this was a small local event, now only of interest to those working on the history of the city of Newcastle in the north-east of England.

Mass exhibition events like 1929 were designed specifically to addressed global and national concerns and situations we are very familiar in 2022.

They were deliberate targeted civic and industrial responses to peoples’ growing fears about job security, economic shocks and technological innovation in an age of increasingly globalized trade.

Sound familiar?

The 1929 organizers and displays owners hoped to tempt visitors to buy from them and engage with their employees and region, a significant concern at a time when the unemployment rate in England was starting to rise. The displays were used to advertise products, services, and most of all – the heavy industrial industries and workforce of the north of England.

Sadly, these efforts were without long-term success.

Like many of the heavy industrial areas of northern Europe, the economic crises of the Depression era left the region in a desperate situation, and its people in extreme hardship. Even the excellent LNER railway poster (above), by Frank Mason from the 1930s could not reverse the problems of the 1930s heavy industries.

My blog posts will explore the histories of both the famous and the-not-so-famous participants in the 1929 Exhibition. We will be exploring through the Exhibition’s main media: consumer products!

There was no shortage of objects produced for visitors and exhibitors alike to enjoy, from temporary designed houses and stands, a mock ‘African’ village and fairground rides. Multiple eateries catered to a range of budgets. The souvenir kiosks and special edition goods were a major feature of nearly everyone’s experience of visiting.

It is the sheer volume of the cheap souvenir goods from the kiosks that have ensured that we can study visitors’ and staff experiences. Most are now preserved in local museums, and sometimes still in people’s homes.

Each item tells a story. Join me over the coming months to find out more.

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