More Britons than ever before went to the cinema in 1946. Robin Buss reports as a celebration of the movies then and now hits the road
In London, the United Nations General Assembly met for the first time, offering hope for a more harmonious world, while in the United States, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill coined the phrase "Iron Curtain". Dr Benjamin Spock published his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun opened on Broadway and Jean Cocteau released his magical film of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. It was 1946, which was also the year that more bums hit cinema seats in Britain than ever before, or since. Lying roughly halfway between our own time and the invention of cinema, this audience peak provides a reference point for the British Film Institute's travelling exhibition Moving Pictures, which has just launched in Sheffield. The exhibition will visit Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to London in 2004.
Exhibits include a replica 1940s cinema foyer and the dress worn by Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady - one of the most popular films of 1946. Some previous accounts of cinema history have concentrated on technology - the change from silent to sound, the arrival of colour and the widescreen. Here, too, you will see examples of pre-cinematic moving or projected images - zoetropes, praxinoscopes, thaumotropes and magic lanterns.
But the emphasis throughout is on the audience - how early cinema appealed to the same public as fairground magic lantern shows; how the cinema-going experience altered over time; how audiences changed with the arrival of television; and how television is increasingly breaking down the barrier between media people and ordinary viewers through "reality television", docudrama and game shows. "At the end of the exhibition, an actor playing a game show host will be exploring how much people have learned," says Matt Smith, medium development manager at the BFI and one of the show's organisers.
The use of actors in costume is one of the many popular approaches Moving Pictures has borrowed from the Museum of the Moving Image in London (which has been closed for the past two years). "It's going to appear quite different to how people expect an exhibition to look," says Mr Smith. "There'll be lots of movement going on, so it will be exciting and dynamic. It should be fun."
A key section of the show centres on 1946, he explains. "I hope that with families there will be a lot of intergenerational learning. We've got a recreation of a 1946 tearoom, and some lovely quotes from usherettes - for example, that torches should never be shone above eye-level, or that couples were having far too much fun."
Education has been a major consideration for the project creators. Actors will be on hand to help school parties, and the organisers are preparing resource packs for pupils and teachers, with a particular emphasis on key stages 2 and 3, as well as older students. "We're aiming to empower teachers, so they know a lot about the exhibition before they come and can focus according to what their students are learning," says Mr Smith.
The BFI had to decide whether or not to concentrate on particular curriculum areas, and, if so, which ones. It settled on an emphasis on art and design, with links to other curriculum areas, which helps to explain why animation is highlighted. Visitors will be able to try their hands at creating a cartoon, and the section on animation ends by looking at the use of drawing throughout the film business, with examples of costume, storyboarding and set design. Moving pictures often start with still pictures.
"The moving image is a core part of what we do and who we are," says Mr Smith. "How we use it has changed and its change has reflected what we expect and want out of life."
Too often, moving images are considered an entertaining diversion. This exhibition aims to elevate its study within the curriculum.
Cinema audiences may have declined since 1946, but the importance of the moving image in our perception of reality has vastly increased. The cinema-goers of the Forties may have followed the first UN meeting or watched Churchill's speech in Fulton on a newsreel, some time after the event, perhaps in a railway station news theatre; but they would have gathered most of their news from the press or the radio.
Today, events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks are played out in our homes, as they happen. Moving pictures are all around us - and that's something we have to learn to deal with.
Moving Pictures is at the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield until May 19 then Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Bristol and London in December 2004. Tickets: pound;4 for adults, pound;3 concessions. During the exhibition's stay in Sheffield, there will be special screenings at the UGC cinema and educational screenings at the Showroom cinema. Contact: Millennium Galleries, Arundel Gate, Sheffield S1 2PP. Tel: 0114 278 2600; web: www.sheffieldgalleries.org.ukindex2.htm; email: email@example.com Further information and tour dates available on the BFI website: www.bfi.org.ukmovingpicturesindex.htmlBFI education: 020 7957 4787