"A really successful poster actually tells people what to do". That's the opening message from Dr Laragh Gollogly of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the BBC's new audio-slideshow on public health posters. The posters shown are some of those selected by Dr Gollogly for publication in a splendid illustrated book Public health campaigns: getting the message across (Geneva: WHO, 2009), which was launched at the Wellcome Library earlier this year.
The international coverage of the WHO (it has 193 countries as members) makes it well suited to display the particular problems arising from health campaigns in more than one country, which are discussed by Dr Gollogly in the audio commentary and illustrated in the choice of posters. Without detailed local knowledge, it would be impossible to respond to people's fears and desires, stir their emotions and engage them in the mission to do whatever the campaign needs to get done. Some of the posters are less concerned with "telling people what to do" than with raising their awareness of what not to do, and in fact a wide range of approaches is revealed.
Anyone working with historic posters faces particular obstacles. The collections are scattered. There are not many catalogues, and most of them are too laconic from want of contextual information. Almost all the posters other than those produced by the US government are in copyright, and clearance of copyrights can be arduous. Information about dates and print runs is hard to find except in bureaucratic regimes such as Soviet Russia. As a result of Soviet dirigism we know that this diphtheria poster (right) was produced in 1939 and had a print run of 10,000 impressions, but most British, Dutch and Danish posters (for example) do not have the print run printed on them, and we can only guess at the date (1940s or 1950s) of the American swimming-pool poster reproduced above (top).
But the posters are often the main means of communication between health organizations and the public, so it can be rewarding to meet these challenges, as the WHO has done here. And if one does so, one often finds an interesting backstory behind the production of the poster, as for example with Abram Games's controversial Your Britain series (left).
And as more posters are catalogued the job becomes easier, since the opportunities to compare and contrast are increased, and further light is shed on previously obscure designers, publishers and catchphrases. The Wellcome Library catalogue currently includes 4,208 posters, and new items are being added frequently, whether from new acquisitions or from existing, previously uncatalogued, holdings. There are also good online catalogues at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; the US National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland; the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at the University of California in Los Angeles; the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam; the Swiss National Library in Berne; the Museum für Gestaltung in Zürich; the Kunstindustrimuseet in Copenhagen; the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin; and elsewhere. Printed catalogues such as those by William H. Helfand and Marine Robert-Sterkendries have not been superseded by online works, and the WHO's new volume is a useful addition alongside the publications of those expert authors.
The BBC's introduction to the WHO's new work is one in a series of productions by Paul Kerley, who has refined these five-minute talks with music and visual evidence into a fine art. Recent productions by him deal with Pope John Paul II's almost-cancelled tour of the UK in 1982, Siegfried Sassoon's World War I manuscripts in Cambridge University Library, and the current exhibition of Frederick Cayley Robinson's paintings at the National Gallery in London: all highly recommended for their production skills in addition to their subject matter.
Top: poster designed by Dorothy Darling Fellnagel (1913-2006) and published in the USA in the 1940s or 1950s. Wellcome Library no. 47637i
Above right: "Protect your child from diphtheria. Go to the doctor and get him vaccinated.", Moscow 1939. Wellcome Library no. 545750i
Above left: poster designed by Abram Games (1914-1996) in 1942, showing Kensal House, at the north end of Ladbroke Grove in London, as a promise of improved housing after the war. Wellcome Library no. 20283i