Exhibitions: Empire and Industry

views updated

Exhibitions: Empire and Industry



Public Displays. The late nineteenth century has been identified as an “age of exhibitions” as European, North American, and various colonial governments sponsored public displays that celebrated imperial power and the marc of industry. These events emerged out of older European traditions of the collection and display of curiosities, ethnological artifacts, and technological wonders. Yet, where eighteenth-century collectors were from elite backgrounds and their collections were either private or attached to exclusive institutions, the late nineteenth century witnessed a democratization of display as states invested heavily in the Imperial Exhibitions, Expositions Universelles, and, later, World’s Fairs that were aimed at the masses. Although an important French tradition of public exhibitions emerged at the close of the eighteenth century (beginning with the large exhibition organized by the Marquis d’Aveze at the Maison d’Orsay in 1798), the age of exhibitions was truly inaugurated by “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” held in 1851. Opened by Queen Victoria on 1 May, the exhibition was held in the Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and erected in London’s Hyde Park. This immense facility housed more than fifteen thousand exhibitors (drawn from all over the British Empire, Europe, and the United States) who demonstrated a huge range of art, artisanal skills, and industrial technologies, including a steam-powered Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, and a reaping machine from the United States. Taken together, these displays celebrated the value of technology, the rise of industrial production, and the British Empire’s wealth.

Powerful Model. The Great Exhibition of 1851 proved a powerful model for the many exhibitions that proliferated in the later nineteenth century, as European nations and the United States celebrated their industrial power, colonies demonstrated their economic significance and social progress, and noncolonized nations, such as Japan, attempted to proclaim their “modern” status. Between 1852 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, major international and imperial exhibitions were held in London

(1862, 1871–1874, 1886, 1899, and 1911), Dublin (1865), Sydney (1870 and 1879–1880), Paris (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900), Melbourne (1861, 1866–1867, 1875, 1884–1885, and 1888), Calcutta (1883–1884), Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Amsterdam (1883), New Orleans (1884–1885), Chicago (1893), Delhi (1903), and St. Louis (1904). Although many contemporaries believed that these exhibitions were popular spectacles of only fleeting significance, they did have profound and, in many cases, permanent social, cultural, and political outcomes. Not only did these exhibitions introduce new technologies and consumer goods to mass audiences, but they also underpinned the emergence of new institutions such as public museums and art galleries (the Great Exhibition, for example, formed the basis for the later establishment of Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the National History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum) and produced dense bodies of official and popular literature.

Culture of Empires. Exhibitions and expositions were an integral component of the culture of empires. By displaying the commodities and goods produced in the colonies and by exhibiting the new industrial and communication technologies, imperial exhibitions downplayed the violence of imperialism, instead celebrating the “progress” and “modernity” produced by colonialism. Exhibition organizers also identified exhibitions as crucial forums for inculcating the ideas that held empires together: ideologies of social and moral progress, the inherent value of technology and industrial innovation, and notions of imperial citizenship and unity. This faith in the cultural


The centerpiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace was a potent symbol of the technological and social innovations of the Victorian age. Designed in just ten days by the renowned architect Sir Joseph Paxton, the innovative Palace featured interchangeable glass and steel components that greatly reduced construction cost of the huge greenhouse-like building. In response to widespread concern that Paxton’s design would not stand up to the weight and motion of huge crowds, a model was constructed and extensively tested, including stress testing under the regimented marching of a battalion of soldiers. The building, which included 4,000 tons of iron and 900,000 square feet of glass, was 1,848 feet long and 408 wide, enclosed some 772,784 square feet (19 acres), and this space, an area four times that of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome or six times that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, provided the central display for the exhibition as a whole.

Widely celebrated as a marvel of industrial engineering, the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in South London after the Great Exhibition closed. This new 200-acre Crystal Palace Park was opened by Queen Victoria in June 1854 and quickly became a crucial site in the world of Victorian sporting culture. It served as the premier athletics venue in Britain well into the twentieth century. Starting in 1857, cricket was played in the park, and in 1861 the first Crystal Palace football team was formed. Twenty finals of the Football Association Cup— the premier trophy in football—were played at Crystal Palace between 1895 and 1914, drawing crowds in excess of 100,000. In 1911 the Crystal Palace temporarily reverted to its original function, hosting the Festival of Empire. After World War I, John Logie Baird selected it as the site for his television company. Based in the south tower, the Baird Television Company had four fully equipped studios at Crystal Palace from June 1934. In 1936 a fire devastated the building, and although the Park remained an important sporting and cultural center, the gutting of the Palace itself marked the destruction of one of the most important architectural achievements and cultural landmarks of the industrial age.

Sources: Peter H. Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

John Tallis, Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World’s Industry in 1851, 3 volumes (London … New York: J. Tallis, 1852).

significance of imperial and colonial exhibitions rested upon an insistence that these events were effective media of education. Mass participation was a fundamental element of these Victorian exhibitions in both Europe and its various colonies. Although some radical and working-class observers were critical of exhibition commissioners and the representation of work and industry, urban laborers and their families were a prominent component of the exhibitions’ audiences. Special transport arrangements and reduced ticket prices for laborers helped swell the massive attendance at these displays. Some five million visitors, for example, attended the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in South Kensington in 1886. Exhibitions in the colonies proved equally popular, with, for example, more than one million attendees at the Calcutta International Exhibition in 1883-1884. These numbers are a clear testament to the power and popularity of these great imperial spectacles.


Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

Peter H. Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Louise Purbrick, ed., The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).

Robert W. Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Rydell, John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle, Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000).