On 1 May 1851, the newly erected Crystal Palace flung open its doors for the very first time, revealing its casket of wonders to the 25,000 people that had gathered outside the doors. The Great Exhibition was an unprecedented event in British society, as for the first time in history, Britain’s treasures, from both home and abroad, were placed on display for all to see. The Crystal Palace was, for six months, home to a dazzling array of the world’s raw materials and produce, the best of British technology, manufacturing and design, and a range of spectacular art and cultural heritage. The British writer Charlotte Bronte, on visiting the exhibition in the summer of 1851, wrote, “Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things.”
The Great Exhibition was a masterstroke of imperial branding, showcasing Britain’s role as a global leader, civilizing power, and technological force, and creating a sense of national unity and pride. In this respect, it was the materialization of British identity for the first time on the public stage, allowing people across all social classes to participate in the spectacle of British expansion.
- 1847 – RSA granted a royal charter
- 1 June 1849 – 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition
- 1850 – Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 formed
- 1 May 1851 – The Great Exhibition opens to the public
- Henry Cole – Exhibition organizer and civil servant
- Prince Albert – Prince Consort and Exhibition organizer and patron
- Queen Victoria – British Monarch 1837-1901
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel – British civil engineer, part of the Crystal Palace Commission
- Joseph Paxton – Architect of the Crystal Palace
The Age of Exhibitionism: Henry Cole and the Inspiration for the Exhibition
In many respects, the impetus for the Great Exhibition of 1851 was commercial. During the 1840s, a new phenomenon had emerged in British society, in which small-scale exhibitions of British manufactured goods were put on display, in order to educate the British public and develop their tastes. Domestic demand was a key driver of imperial trade, and the rise of forms of conspicuous middle-class consumption had fuelled demands for luxury and manufactured products in Britain. Public display was increasingly viewed as a way to stimulate growth, publicize British manufacturing, and changing public tastes. During the 1840s, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), recently given a royal charter under the patronage of Prince Albert, put on a range of product showcases that gave much-needed publicity to British manufacturing and industry.
In 1849, the British civil servant Henry Cole visited the 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition, where he was profoundly impressed by the grandeur of the event, and the range of products on display. However, the purpose of the Paris Exhibition was not merely a mechanism to support French production but was also a cultural event designed to send a message to the world. The previous year had witnessed considerable upheaval in France, including the deposition of the Bourbon monarch Louis-Philippe, and the proclamation of the Second Republic. The Exhibition was, therefore, a way to express French unity, stability, and vitality, to legitimize the new regime and importantly, to showcase France’s newest colonial acquisition, Algeria. The event was a roaring success: not only was it well received in France, but it also attracted considerable attention throughout Europe.
The 1849 Paris Exhibition gave Henry Cole several ideas. He wanted to create a similar exhibition in Britain, on a lavish scale, which would not simply focus on British manufacturing, but that would highlight Britain’s role as a global power. Such an event would be a powerful statement of Britain’s place in the world, drawing together artifacts and products from across the British Empire, and demonstrating Britain’s economic and political might. Furthermore, a forward-looking and progressive display of technology, industry, and manufacturing would prove to be the ideal antidote to two decades of social and political upheaval, both within Britain and across the continent. As Britain approached the mid-century, what better way to look to the future than through a display of Britain’s cutting-edge technology?
Immediately on his return from France, he appealed to Prince Albert and Queen Victoria for royal backing to establish a group that would investigate the possibility of such an event in Britain. In 1850, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was established, with Prince Albert as the founding president. Its members were given the gargantuan task of arranging the Exhibition within a year; no small feat, given the ambitious plans of Prince Albert and Henry Cole.
The Cave of Wonders: Building the Crystal Palace
The first major problem facing the organizers was the question of where, and in what building, would the Exhibition be held? As the intention of the Exhibition was to showcase British wealth, prosperity and technology, the structure in which these objects were housed and displayed also needed to represent a triumph of British design and engineering. In January 1850, a new commission was created in order to oversee the planning and construction of the Exhibition building, comprising a number of famous architects, engineers, and notables, including Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Calls went out for proposals for the building and attracted a significant amount of initial attention. However, the commission was unsatisfied with the results. They were initially even unable to agree on the proposed site for the Exhibition and debated at length between plots in Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Battersea, and even the Isle of Dogs.
Eventually, the commission decided on Hyde Park as the most appropriate and central site for the Exhibition, much to the chagrin of local residents. To stand out in such a location, the Exhibition structure needed to be iconic, progressive, and a technical triumph, in addition to being temporary, quick to construct, and most importantly, cheap. The winning design ultimately came from Joseph Paxton, who had gained success and notoriety building greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire. In his design, the Exhibition would be clothed in glass, creating an iconic building that would be seen from afar, glittering in the sunlight.
Paxton’s design was a triumph of engineering and impressive design, creating a structure that would accommodate the local nature, provide sufficient space for all of the exhibits, and be quick and cheap to erect. Construction began in July 1850 and was completed within five months. In this period, 900,000 square feet of glass was installed in the cast iron frame. The Palace was 563m wide, 139m long, and 41m high, with enough space inside to even enclose two large elm trees that sat on the Exhibition site. The Crystal Palace was born.
Opening Day: Showcasing Production
On 1 May 1851, Queen Victoria officially opened the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The exhibits drew widespread awe and acclaim, as they showcased such a wide variety of traditions, technological processes, cultures and art forms. The total number of exhibits on display was in excess of 13,000, arranged in a chaotic and overwhelming manner throughout the building. The brightness of the building created a dazzling visual cacophony, and many visitors remarked upon the disorienting profusion of the Exhibition.
The organization of the displays followed particular themes, gently moving the visitor along a narrative of progress. The first section focused on raw materials and produce, most of which came from Britain’s colonies. In this section, India took pride of place, as Britain’s most significant colonial territory. In particular, one of the most impressive displays to come from India was the Koh-i-Noor, the world’s largest known, cut diamond, which had been acquired as part of the Lahore Treaty the previous year. The Koh-i-Noor was a triumph and operated as a metaphor for the dazzling brilliance of the Crystal Palace, and the exhibition as a whole.
The Exhibition then focused on machinery and mechanical processes that showcased technology. In this section, for example, visitors could trace the production of cotton from the plant all the way to the finished product. Other exhibits included displays of steel manufacture. The third section centered on the manufactured goods produced in Britain, and across the Empire, including telescopes, kitchen appliances, and clothing, and finally, the fourth section displayed works of art and beauty: the pinnacle of human creative and technical achievement. This structural organization allowed the visitors to learn, sometimes for the first time, the processes that led to the construction of the objects they used in their everyday lives: clothes, china, shoes, paper, and tools. It also created a teleological narrative of progress, moving from the raw materials, through manufacture, to the sublime beauty of human creativity, technology, and artisanship.
The Exhibition was an unprecedented success. It is thought that in six months over the summer of 1851, one-third of the entire population of Britain attended the Exhibition, which recorded average daily visits of 42,830. Many visitors returned multiple times; such was the richness and diversity of the objects on display.
Public Education and Victorian Paternalism
One of the most striking features of the Great Exhibition of 1851 is its wide appeal across the social spectrum. The event proved to hold a powerful attraction for the working classes, who had, in most cases, never before had the opportunity to see such a rich and varied display of products and artifacts. The Crystal Palace alone, with its striking glasswork and unique features, created a spectacle that hundreds of thousands of working men, women and children flocked to witness. For these people, the Exhibition made British imperialism a visceral reality: for the first time they were able to see and share in the spoils of Empire and to observe the material consequences of British expansion for themselves.
For some of the Exhibition organizers, including Prince Albert, this was an intentional consequence of the project. The Exhibition was designed to have an appeal that cut across class divisions, and Albert saw to it that affordable tickets were made available to poorer visitors on certain days. The introduction of tickets for just one shilling allowed almost anyone to visit the Exhibition and ensured that the event went beyond elite and middle-class circles. The Exhibition broke down the traditional class barriers that compartmentalized public space: in the Crystal Palace, working men rubbed shoulders with the aristocracy and the middle class, creating a sense of national unity that had not been allowed to occur in public space before. Over the course of the Exhibition’s run, four and half million of the total six million tickets were sold in the cheapest category, demonstrating the degree to which the working classes were finally allowed to participate in what had hitherto been thought of as solely the preserve of elites.
However, this was not necessarily because Albert and the other Exhibition organizers wanted to create a more egalitarian society, or felt strongly about working-class rights. Rather, it stemmed from a belief in the educational power of material culture and technology. It was thought that, by educating working-class people about British and imperial culture, art and technology, they would be ‘raised up,’ and improved, drawing them away from less genteel and ‘uncivilized’ working-class forms of entertainment. Victorian sensibilities were suffused with Christian morality, and in this period there was a keen vocation to educate and ‘civilize’ the masses, both at home and in their colonial territories overseas. The developing museum culture proved a useful mechanism for the transmission of these Victorian moral values, of hard work, Christian goodness, industry, and progress.
The Great Exhibition was a huge success, attracting over six million visitors and generating a significant amount of unexpected profit (£186,000). This money was put to use in creating three permanent museums not far from the original Crystal Palace site, that could be used to house come of the exhibits: the Museum of Manufactures (later the Victoria and Albert Museum), the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum. Prince Albert became an influential patron of this burgeoning museum culture, and the museum quarter of South Kensington remains a major tourist attraction in London to the present day. Proceeds from the exhibition were also used to fund research in science and engineering, creating an educational trust that continues to operate today.
The Crystal Palace itself was only ever designed to be a temporary structure, but after the success of the Exhibition, it was felt that the building should be relocated to a permanent site. After much deliberation, a plot was chosen on Sydenham Hill, near Penge. Although many of the same materials were used, the building was completely redesigned in a Beaux-Arts style with a new vaulted roof. In its new home, the Crystal Palace was the site for exhibitions, events, concerts, and plays, and it successfully attracted large crowds in its early years. However, the upkeep of the building proved too costly to sustain, and gradually it fell into a state of disrepair. In the aftermath of World War One, the Crystal Palace was temporarily reopened as the Imperial War Museum and then underwent a considerable renovation. However, in 1936, disaster struck: a fire broke out inside and consumed the entire building in just a few hours. With the cost of rebuilding prohibitively expensive, the story of the Crystal Palace came to an end.
The Great Exhibition was not without its critics, and many members of British elite society felt that it was a travesty and a waste to allow working-class people entry to such a lavish display of culture. Many thought that the event would descend into a mob, causing violence and damage to the precious artifacts. From another perspective, theorists such as Karl Marx criticized the Exhibition as a triumph of commercialism, encouraging forms of consumer culture that would only serve to oppress the working classes. While this may be true, the Exhibition was unprecedented in fostering public education for the working classes and creating a museum culture that was based on the principle of accessibility and shared cultural heritage.
Ultimately, the Great Exhibition allowed Britain the opportunity to look at itself in the mirror. By gathering such a diverse and rich display of British and imperial material culture together in one space, the Exhibition allowed visitors to see, for the first time, their own identity as an imperial nation. This burgeoning sense of identity would fuel the Victorian age, creating a sense of national pride and unity, and cementing a belief in the civilizing power of empire.
Sites to Visit
- The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London. This iconic building was constructed, along with the nearby Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, in order to permanently house some of the exhibits put on show in 1851. Development on this site was funded by the profits made on the Great Exhibition and represents an extension of Prince Albert’s convictions regarding public education and the display of the material culture of the British Empire.
- The Tower of London, Tower Hamlets, London. The Tower of London is the current home of the fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was featured at the exhibition. It is currently laid into the Queen Mother’s crown and remains in the Jewel House in the Tower of London.
- Hyde Park, Kensington, London. Visit the original site of the exhibition and the Crystal Palace, close to the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall in Hyde Park.
Film and TV
- Victoria and Albert, a 2001 BBC miniseries based on Queen Victoria’s early life and marriage to Prince Albert, deals with the Great Exhibition and Albert’s increasingly public role.
- John Davis, The Great Exhibition, (Sutton, 1999). A useful introduction to the exhibition, with rich descriptions of the major displays and artifacts.
- Jonathon Shears (ed.), The Great Exhibition, 1851: A Sourcebook, (Manchester University Press, 2017). A useful introductory work focusing our sources of information about the exhibition.
- Heritage Hunter and Andrew Chapman, The Great Exhibition in Colour, (Prepare to Publish, 2016). This beautiful volume brings together a number of color illustrations of the Great Exhibition made by Victorian artists.