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The Impacts Of The Great Exhibition History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park was arguably the pinnacle of showing off Victorian Britain (in all its might, power, status, splendour and beauty) all in the luxury and elegance as befitted the world’s greatest empire and power at the height of the British Empire. It was a marvellous opportunity and event to showcase (in nationalistic patriotistic pride) great science and technological advances of Britain to (and for the first time) to both international and domestic countries. The exhibition was meant to showcase and highlight and illuminate how young, exciting and inspirational Victorian Britain was and how it was full of great ideas and innovations- some of which were worldwide firsts and to be treasured and valued highly. The honour and glory of Victorian Britain was on full public display and every class was somehow affected and involved. This essay will examine, describe and critically evaluate and explain the legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851 which specific and special attention to science and technological impacts. The elite landed and titled upper and middle classes tended overwhelmingly to dominate and form the majority in high society events and exhibits such as the great science and technology on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was no exception to this rule. Specifically this essay will discuss the collection that was made and redisplayed when the original exhibition closed; other exhibitions that followed in other cities; the development of the various museums around South Kensington in London; also the development of various educational institutions and museums around South Kensington (including the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum), partly because of the money made (the exhibition was a great success) and the fact that they had to do something with the exhibits which exhibitors didn’t want to take back, and also the string of international exhibitions following the 1851 one (e.g., in Paris etc) – where e.g., electricity etc were displayed excitingly.

The legacy of the Great Exhibition has been too narrowly researched and studied and “to get a sense of the legacy of the Great Exhibition we have to cast the net wide…” [1] . Even though the Exhibition was popular and successful apathy and disinterest did increase at such a highly organised culture [2] Prince Albert’s dreams, wishes, hopes and desires and aims were not fully met. Specifically and especially and particularly on the legacy for science museums to science grew in number and spread and [3] “The legacy of the Crystal Palace suggests once again that Victorian science was not really a value-free search for natural truths- instead it was an enterprise that engaged God and capitalism, entertainment and commerce, the moral and the useful, science and show…” The effects on technology were instrumental too; The Great Exhibition broke down barriers and obstacles of secrecy and privacy that had for ages stopped the growth of the transitional spread of technical information across businesses and organisations. They were also a value-free place for new technologies to be showcased, tested live and promoted and judged and brought and publicised. [4] Punch tried so hard to degrade and poke fun and discredit and devalue the Great Exhibition of 1851 due to its racism, oppression and domination and the rampant big gap between the richer and poorer but “Nevertheless, it cannot forget that popular opinion finds the Exhibition exciting and amazing and Punch, in the end, cannot escape the popular nationalist rhetoric of dominant Great Exhibition commentaries…” [5] . The Exhibition also had darker meanings “…it was already at work in half-hidden ways rewriting and transforming that culture…” [6] and “internal displacement and dispossession…” [7] and “….Hidden darker meanings and purposes behind the bright, light, facades (as a distraction and rouse).” [8] Overall, the great ideals of Prince Albert were ultimately finally successful in time and space “…Prince Albert’s dream of an international centre celebrating the arts and sciences has been achieved, through the determination and dedication of those who served the Commission over the intervening century and a half, either as members or officers. They have created the world-class museums of art and science which he wanted to see, founded in the wake of the successful international exhibition, and colleges in both cultures now train students from all over the world. “Albertopolis” celebrates its founder’s ideals and ambitions for his adopted country, but also exemplifies the truly international quality of the man himself and the institutions he created”. [9] Prince Albert’s dreams, wishes, hopes and desires and ambitions may have been lofty and some thought unattainable were in time gradually became realistic and attainable and achievable as the Prince was not naive and too ambitious he was actually as well also pragmatic methodical and sensible who kept in touch with real world practical applications as well as making grand bold claims.

Changing perceptions and realities were instrumental to the legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The socio-economic climate changed so much in the Victorian Period that fashions came and went. “Eventually, around the turn of the century, the Crystal Palace euphoria began to wane. This was partly to do with changing notions of recreation, which no longer revolved around education, and partly the result of a wider education in support for Victorian values like free trade and cosmopolitanism which the Exhibition had propounded, and which had given the building symbolic value…” [10] The science and technology legacy of the Great Exhibition was a great forerunner and forethought and started the increasing modernisation and industrialisation of modern contemporary Britain [11] “The main significance of the Great Exhibition was that it helped to harness the forces of industrialisation and, by making them acceptable, promote them in Britain and the world. There were many different groups involved in the event, and the aims of the Exhibition were various and often contradictory. In total, however, they represented a push for modernisation that helped overcome obstacles which still existed mid-century. This process continues down to the present. This type of rhetoric created for the first time in support of the Exhibition is still used to support technological progress, industrialisation, and globalisation today. The Great Exhibition was a dramatic contribution to the creation of the modern industrialised society in which we live.” [12] 

Linked and mixed within the legacy of the Great Exhibition is not just science and technology but also inevitably and inexorably linked is the religious perception and reality. “Most of the strong religious opposition to the exhibition dated from the late 1850 and the early months of 1851 but had largely disappeared by the time of the grand opening. Even some of the periodicals that had earlier criticized the exhibition changed their opinion after the official opening and participated in the widespread euphoria and optimism that the exhibition engendered.” [13] Most religious factions gave in and joined in the celebrations of the 1851 Great Exhibition. “…this crucial disparity allowed many religious contemporaries to hail the Exhibition as a religious event, while others, including most historians, view it as a thoroughly secular celebration of technology, industry, and commerce” [14] Odd mixture of a religious or entirely politically non religious event. “…that energetically sought to evangelize among the visitors- demonstrated that they came to view the Exhibition as a crucially important event and one that required a decisive religious response.” [15] Religion needed to be strongly represented and heard at the great exhibition of 1851. “…Thus while the organizers portrayed the Exhibition as a vehicle to disseminate peace and international brotherhood, many evangelicals perceived it as a prime opportunity to trumpet the pre-eminence of Protestantism and of England.” [16] “Indeed, for many of these writers the Exhibition served as an imperfect but humanly graspable model of the New Jerusalem. Most Christians, far from rejecting the Great Exhibition, welcomed it…” Could be seen as a great example of best practice for the whole world. [17] “…Thus while Catholics saw the Exhibition ….oppression, the Anglo-Jewish elite perceived the successes of Jews in the Exhibition as legitimating the equality of the Jews at the height of the arguments over emancipation. Secularists appeared to have been divided over the value of the Exhibition, with Owen in particular using it to propagate his messiac vision, while more radical Socialists saw only its social dangers…But for all three groups the Exhibition raised the issue of identity, as they struggled to position themselves in the religious landscapes of the mid-century.” [18] Catholics saw it as exclusionary and exclusive; Jews saw it as a great opportunity to gain respect and admiration. Secularists had mixed views. Owen used it as a platform for his own views, opinions and ideals while other more radical people saw it only as subversive and dangerous…most of all it was a search for a concrete purpose for existence at all for religious groups. “Like a number of other pacifists, Burritt considered that the Exhibition marked the start of a new era in world history, when the aura of peace and international cooperation would displace the old world of warring nations. While human willpower had an important role to play in ushering this new age, Burritt’s vision was deeply religious. The gathering of the nations in London was part of a divinely ordained plan and the fulfillment of prophecy. A new age was just beginning…” [19] Burritt and other such pacifists believed a new world order would come based on the lofty ideals of cooperation, respect, and peace and love rather than vicious factions ready for war forming and creating intense rivalries in naval and army power. “…Prince Albert not only stressed the importance of advancing industry and commerce through the exhibition, but also set this notion of material progress firmly within a religious frame. He envisaged the Exhibition as a divinely ordained event that would display God’s creation, advance Christianity, and engender both moral improvement and international peace…” [20] Prince Albert in greatly advocating and backing and supporting and patronising the Great Exhibition of 1851 believed it would be instrumental to the scientific and technological advancements moving forwards but within a secular way. “…This study has shown that many different aspects of religion entered the frame and that the Great Exhibition of 1851 cannot simply be portrayed as a secular event but also heralded an important moment in the religious world of early Victorian England. As one contemporary (John Stoughton) stated The Crystal Palace was “a Monument of Christianity”, From this perspective the significance of the Great Exhibition of 1851 lay in its profound yet multiple religious meanings”. [21] So, The Great Exhibition of 1851, therefore, in conclusion, was a very important event not just for science and technology but for religion also too and that the varied and mixed responses highlight and illuminate this.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the step to further equality and breaking down of barriers to the lower socio-economic groups who beforehand could only dream and wish of being close to the upper echelons of society were now in direct contact with them at the Great Exhibition of 1851, [22] “The Crystal Palace was an apt if unconscious symbol of this new state of affairs: the walls were all of glass but the lower orders were now inside, joining in the fun…”. Bradford had such “high quality” [23] materials that it got prizes and awards. The mass movement of population streaming into London “was followed in communities all across the country. It soon became apparent that 1851 would see by far the biggest influx of visitors that the capital had ever been required to endure. And many of its citizens were beginning to view the prospect with trepidation, even outright alarm…” [24] The upper classes and aristocracy feared in a very real and apparent way social revolution by the more lively and energetic revolting and dissenting lower classes and feared their dominance and strength and power may diminish and so it was very important to impose order and control. [25] There were late objections and difficulties by the exhibitors. [26] At least worries about the security and steadiness of the building were reducing [27] The Exhibitions were a colourful, varied mixture of real finds of great beauty or complexity or good practical applications but some were just for show in there by luck and chance and good fortune [28] . The British science and technology on display was the best most cutting edge of the period but also frivolous tat and educating others about how our “natural resources…fuel our role as a leading manufacturing nation..” [29] There was the first real attempt to introduce foreign more exotic food and drink in the Great Exhibition of 1851 with regional dishes from all around the world. Although economically a failure Soyer’s Symposium was the first tentative step towards the cosmopolitainisation and worldwide influence on the English taste buds… [30] The Great Exhibition of 1851 did not start the process of international cooperation and harmony as lots had feverishly wished for “But it did herald changes in British society far more profound than its promoters could ever have imagined…” [31] The Great Exhibition of 1851 somehow rallied together and strengthened and renewed and revived and refreshed a trust and faith and belief in the goodness of the monarchist system. There was a real reluctance and resistance to leaving for a few. [32] The legacy continued for the next three decades at least, as The Crystal Palace held regularly scheduled events and activities such as world record attempts, animal shows and all different kinds of exhibits and fairs such as floral shows and such like so on. Its last grand large scale event was the 1911 Festival of Empire. [33] In 1851 the wonder and excitement at such a new and exciting Exhibition was very real and matchless.

There were a succession and series of Great Exhibitions’ and World’s Fairs from 1851 to 1939 never matching in a real way the grandeur and splendour or popularity or success of the initial landmark 1851 Great Exhibition. Exhibitions grew in strength and power and number in a way that was both gradual and hesitant but also was going to happen whether or not regardless of circumstance or situation [34] Exhibitions were both very expensive to run, but also had amazing potential as a centre for business and earning economic potential. “They were intended to distract, indoctrinate, and unify a population” [35] The Imperial displays at exhibitions filled a role which had been relentlessly demeaned undermined or sentimentalised since the fall of the orthodoxy conservative. European society and culture was very mixed up and muddled and conflicting and differing and confused in its intentions and purposes “…The coming together of contradictory values at the exhibitions, whereby positive notions of progress were buttressed against organised oppression and exploitation, says much about the plural morality in operation throughout European culture at the time. Ultimately, as with a vast number of cultural artefacts, it must be concluded that the exhibitions embodied neither good nor evil in any simple sense but were a complex mixture of both…” [36] The Exhibitors rather than breaking down inequality and hatred maybe even strengthened and increased the endemic racism and exploitation and oppression “…one of the few levels where European Society operated in the absence of class was in the domain of racial prejudice. Messages phrased in consistent manner to all levels of society affirmed the inferiority of coloured people’s… with little good coming out of them in social, moral, or intellectual terms. [37] Before World War Two nations were able to put aside differences to exhibit together. Rather than cultivating understandings and cooperation’s as time went by nations refused and objected to exhibit with rival ideologies especially and particularly after WW2. [38] “…No international understanding, no growth of human fellowship, no reconciliation of peoples or nations…” [39] Art and fashion and architecture and design have gone downhill in quality and inventiveness and originality after WW2. [40] There was no massive greater equality for women in the twentieth century with regards to women exhibiting and being exhibited “…In fact this has not been the case, much of the twentieth century being little better than the nineteenth in terms of the presence of women artists in expositions, galleries and museums…” [41] It was wrong to overstate or over exaggerate The Fine Arts role in exhibitions and world’s fairs “…Having said this, without the fine arts, as elite and rarified as they were prone to be, the exhibitions would have lacked one of the conceptual elements which keep them perennially interesting…”. [42] 

The outward image the exhibition gave was very important and was negotiated and compromised and debated over at length and breadth. “What should be clear though from the outset is that the exhibition lacked any crude or fixed ideology. Rather, its organisation reflects many different objectives…” [43] Rather than universally maintained with the British people, they turned to the idea with scepticism and distrust and criticism. “Briton’s did not immediately support the idea, as outcries over the contract and the building should have been made clear. Resolving these disputes was only a stop gap measure for the organisers, at best, an exercise in damage control (had to act as mediators and peacekeepers)…Critical to the success of the exhibition would be the commissions ability to sell the plan to the public in a positive way, to promote and publicise the exhibition to the entire nation…” [44] The Great Exhibition was not just an isolated metaphorical event but it had purpose and meaning too and it had to be marketed, branded and promoted for it to be a success but it was not just an ideological tool for increasing nationalism and patriotism as its meanings it projected were mixed and unstable. [45] The Great Exhibition recemented and reminded of Britain’s high and special and grand status of a leading scientific and technological nation “…It meant hand-crafted as much as machine-made goods. It mean small-scale as much as large-scale production. And it meant finding a balance of both arts and manufacturers, of commerce and culture…” [46] The Great Exhibition showed that even though Britain was deeply split in socio-economic and cultural and political terms it was still united “…There was in a sense, both integration and segregation..” [47] There was an altogether more darker and sinister and revealing and illuminating other alternative purpose to the Exhibition that instead of all being about peace and love and harmony and reversing barriers that pre existed to greater integration and cooperation the population at large also saw it as a great “competition” to promote British greatness and its own meanings for existence by making fun of exotic “other” countries though humiliation, demonization and oppression and exploitation. Its greatest most lasting legacy was that it was greatly highly valued and treasured and famous internationally and domestically. “From its construction in 1854 until its destruction in 1936, the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, far more than the memory of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park remained an enduring symbol of the nation. It was the icon that foreigners such as Dostoyevsky and Taine and nationals such as Disraeli and Gissing pointed to as the barometer of Britain’s successes and failures, its character and orientation” [48] There was no single unified meaning or purpose to the exhibition as the purposes and meanings were flexible and changed through time and space. For some it symbolised progression (and a nation at the height of strength, influence and power); for others it stood for all that was incorrect with Victorian Society (such as the extravagance and inequality and opulent luxuriousness and racism and oppression and exploitation). “For some it was the eighth wonder of the world, an Arabian night’s palace; for others it was “ugly”, full of “old things”. All of these debates, both at the time of the exhibition and since, have really been about the nature, or identity, of Britain. That the exhibition put Britain on display there is little doubt. What is, and always will be, open to question is just which visions and versions of Britain it exhibited.” [49] 

The Great Exhibition carefully and methodically projected Britain to the wider world somewhat illogically. What Britain was was open to debate, negotiation and discussion. It was a chance and opportunity to reflect in a fair and accurate way to the world what Britain was like to live and work in and how it was seen to the world was of prime importance. People’s perception at large of Britain (at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851) needed to match the realities of living and working in Britain in the Victorian Period. Overall, it was a massive opportunity to market, promote, brand, and sell Britain as a destination to the world (internationally) like never before rather than just to the British residents (domestically and locally). The Great Exhibition therefore needed to be grand, theatrical, over the top, large, and popular and entertaining as well as teaching and learning and informing and educating the wider population. It had a difficult and challenging balancing act to juggle and master.

Greece’s inclusion and partaking involvement in The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a extraordinary, amazing, surprising, unusual and odd due to its old fashioned conditions and very little growth expansion and progress rate and circumstances and situations of the Victorian Era and how backwards Greece was. [50] America’s involvement won over the hearts and minds of the doubters and deniers of America as a nation and it demanded attention and respect and admiration. [51] The Great Exhibition of 1851 was unsurprisingly not the first Great Exhibition and in the 1810s to 1840s the lower socio-economic groups of society in the Institutes of the professions and working class labourers in the metropolitan and provincial areas formed their own fairs and exhibitions [52] .

In conclusion, the 1851 Great Exhibition can be seen as a great watershed moment. The Victorian love affair and obsession with the public display and pageantry in galleries, museums and exhibitions (both public and private) had always been present but 1851 kick started and accelerated and increased an explosion of new activities and events in the display of science and technology and it was seen as a great success. The Great Exhibition of 1851 touched society in cultural, political, religious and social ways but it would take many more further future generations to see full equality (on gender, racial and class lines) be fully achieved. The Great Exhibition of 1851 especially and particularly was just one tentative hesitant event on the long road to changing society (in the rich tapestry of broader life). To fully erase and eradicate the dominance and subservience in Victorian society and culture (which was so widespread and commonplace) would take radical and far reaching new thoughts and feelings and new laws, rules, governance and statutes. The greatest legacy of this one exhibition (upon reflection) is the continuing formalisation and institutionalisation of science and technology and the widening of public education in science and technology and the growing fascination and appreciation and respect and admiration of science and technology more generally. Although the Great Exhibition was a platform on which countries from around the world could display their achievements, Great Britain sought to prove its own dominance and preeminence.

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