The National Archives in London are marking the publication of the 1921 Census in January with a major new exhibition – The 1920s: Beyond the Roar...
This new exhibition allows visitors to explore 1920s life through a series of urban encounters by presenting the exhibition as a typical street from the time. Visitors will be guided from the dawn of the decade through the key themes of politics and protest, women’s rights, empire and design. Ending, as all good journeys do, in a nightclub.
Drawing on The National Archives’ vast collection of records, artefacts and the expert knowledge of its historians, Beyond the Roar will interrogate the period’s stereotypes and pivot attention to the everyday experience. Excitement, social change and champagne-fuelled defiance marks this decade, sandwiched between two world wars with a populace recovering from the ’Spanish Flu’ influenza pandemic. Polarising social issues and political demonstrations were grappled with as frequently as new fashion and rising hemlines.
Visitors will encounter stories thematically tied to buildings and places, including a newspaper stand, a polling station, a draper’s shop and a 1920s home. Objects on display include early Chanel dress fabrics and geometric patterns beside more traditional chintzes and paisleys, including some on display to the public for the first time. While these samples show how women’s clothes operated as a barometer of change, family photos illuminate how a new concern for public health and morality impacted many aspects of domestic life.
The exhibition takes the 1921 Census as its keystone to help reconstruct this fascinating world. Alongside records as diverse as international peace treaties, textile samples and lonely heart ads, the census stands as a historic document itself that brought the roar to a still and sealed it as a permanent record. Highlights include police reports to the Home Office on the Liverpool Race Riots of 1919, The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 and a draft of the new elector registration form adding female pronouns.
A reimagining of infamous Soho nightclub, The 43 club, concludes the visitor’s experience. The design of this space draws on reports from police raids to tell the stories of the venue owned by ’nightclub queen’ Kate Meyrick. Iconic 1920s design features, including patterns, furniture and lighting, bring a dancefloor, bar and seating area to life. Real stories are evidenced by historic documents that draw out glitzy and gritty accounts of The 43 and its staff and clientele, who ranged from film stars and gangsters to Italian waiters and East End dancing instructresses. This space acts as a microcosm that concludes Beyond the Roar by presenting the earlier themes from a different perspective and within a vibrant, social atmosphere.
Steve Burgess, head of Events and Exhibitions at The National Archives, said, "The exhibition forms part of a wider public engagement programme, 20sPeople, which also comprises a series of online and onsite events, learning resources and digital activities with which audiences around the world can engage. Connecting people of the 1920s with audiences of the 2020s, the programme explores 1920s Britain and the stories of individuals learning to live after the trauma of a world war, suffering and surviving through a global pandemic and embarking on a new era where everyday rights and roles were changing."
Then, as now, status and identity regularly impacted life experience while new spaces and development represented wider changes in society. Visitors will feel inspired by the battles people fought and begin to consider history and archives as a way to understand the world today.
The 1920s: Beyond the Roar is part of 20sPeople, a season of exhibitions, activities and events
from The National Archives that explores and shares stories that connect the people of the
2020s with the people of the 1920s. Accompanying the release of the 1921 Census of England
and Wales, 20sPeople shows what we can learn by connecting with those who have gone before
us. The programme will continue into the summer and include a ‘20s themed late in April, in
addition to talks from Catharine Arnold, Amber Butchart, Mel Backe Hansen and The National
Archives in house experts. Guest speakers will cover themes as diverse as 1920s fashion, life
after the First World War, Britain’s place in the world and the experience of a global pandemic.
There will also be a number of newly recorded webinar research guides on researching your
family history and using census records.
The 1920s: Beyond the Roar opens on Friday 21st January 2022 at The National Archives in Kew, South West London. Check out the supporting events programme from November 2021 onwards: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20speople/whats-on/.