This is Tomorrow

Our Thinking about future developments is not something that occupies only scientists: the idea of ‘the future’ has been a driver of creative and artistic development throughout human history. In this article Professor Alastair Wright describes a particularly striking example of this: the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition held in London in 1956.

In the 1950s many British artists, architects and designers began to imagine what the future might look like following the horrors of World War II and the post-war years of rationing and economic slump.  Often they were optimistic about the future, but not always.

One of most significant attempts to envision the future was the ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1956.  For the exhibition the rooms of the gallery were divided into twelve separate sections, each curated by a different group of visual arts practitioners.  The different areas reflected the diverse ways in which the future was imagined at the time.

Some of the groups chose to display modern architectural design in innovative materials such as aluminium and Perspex.  This was one vision of the future: a time when everyone would live in fashionably up-to-date surroundings.  Others presented the latest abstract painting and sculpture, another sign of their orientation towards the new.

Some groups, however, were less sure that the future was just a matter of modern style.  Group 12 devoted their pavilion to information systems. With an interest in early computers and machine-driven decision making, they believed the most significant changes to come would be in how society made use of information technology – a prescient view, given the subsequent rise of smart devices and social media.

The two most striking visions of the future were created by Groups 2 and 6.  Group 6, comprising the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, and the photographer Nigel Henderson, imagined the future as catastrophe.  In their installation, ‘Patio and Pavilion’, rough wooden walls supported a corrugated plastic roof.  The roof and the sand-covered floor were littered with broken and battered objects including parts of a bike, a dented bugle, and an old clock. On the wall Paolozzi hung a photomontage of a cyborg figure, part human, part machine. The installation represented the fragmentary remains of life in the 1950s as they might be excavated by archaeologists of the distant future.  The implication that present-day culture might survive only in this form spoke to memories of the war – the horrors of the Holocaust and of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and to the deeply-felt fear that the incipient Cold War might lead to nuclear annihilation. For Group 6, the future was haunted by the recent past.

At first sight Group 2’s take on the future appears very different.  The artists Richard Hamilton and John McHale and the architect John Voelcker created something akin to a funfair.  Film posters, a cardboard cut-out of Marilyn Monroe, and an oversize Guinness bottle (from an advertising campaign) set the tone.  Robbie the Robot, a fictional character from the film Forbidden Planet (released the same year), also made an appearance, first as a cut-out holding the unconscious heroine of the film, then ‘in person’. Indeed, he was given the honour of ‘opening’ the exhibition on its first night. A juke box played recent pop music hits, and visitors could walk through a fun-house maze whose walls were lined with spinning discs creating optical illusions. This is the future as fun. Revelling in the pleasures of consumer culture – beer, films, pop music – the installation offered a joyful escape from the austerity of post-war Britain. This part of the exhibition was especially popular with Whitechapel’s mostly working-class local population who came to revel in the light-hearted atmosphere.

There was, however, a darker side to Group 2’s installation. In the maze, visitors encountered signs warning them to ‘Think Think Think’ and to ‘Beware shutitis’. Allowing oneself to be seduced by the illusions of consumer culture, the artists suggested, meant that one no longer saw the real world clearly. Dulling our senses, consumer culture might also make us socially and politically compliant. Such anxieties continue to resonate today in debates about the effects of the internet and social media.

Robbie the Robot was also an ambivalent character. In Forbidden Planet he can turn base matter into anything a human being might desire. But the ability to have whatever one wants, the film suggests, can be dangerous. In an amusing episode one of the spaceship’s crew asks for whisky and ends up with a bad hangover. Robbie’s inclusion in the exhibition thus hints again at the dangers of consumerism. Enjoyment might come at a cost.

‘This is tomorrow’ exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London: Group 6 exhibit

Taken together, the different parts of ‘This is Tomorrow’ give a sense of the debates during the 1950s about what the future might look like. Was the world facing a nuclear apocalypse? Was mankind entering a consumerist golden age? Would we all experience whatever came to pass whilst sitting in stylish modern buildings adorned by abstract art?  Only time would tell.

Professor Alastair Wright is Tutorial Fellow in History of Art at St John’s College, Oxford


Create a virtual exhibition, ‘This is Tomorrow 2021’.  What would you put in it?  Would it be optimistic or pessimistic?


How much did the artists, architects and designers of ‘This is Tomorrow’ get right about the future?

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