Our judgment of the Great Exhibition is clouded by the hagiography of contemporary accounts, the generational revolt of mid-twentieth century historians, and post-colonial distaste for things Victorian. The Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, to give it its full title, was just that: a huge and monumental enterprise, of importance in art, science and technology, of political, economic and social significance, and involving not just a huge swathe of British society, but elements from just about the whole globe.
What was the Exhibition’s cultural value? The Great Exhibition was given a multiplicity of meanings; both by its organisers, as a way of achieving support for the event, as well as by its audience. The Great Exhibition’s success – it becomes clear – owed in part to the great conversation that it caused.
In this respect, rather than considering the Exhibition simplistically as a grand demonstration of national prowess fuelled by vanity, or as a covert imperialist plot, or even as a piece of bourgeois propaganda in the face of grinding poverty, a whiff of all of these characteristics and also many others surrounded the event in Hyde Park. Faced with the uphill prospect of generating support for the Exhibition which counters the notion that it was popular from the start – and funding difficulties, a situation not dissimilar to the Olympic 2012 project, the organisers of the Great Exhibition carefully chose to accommodate public concerns and anxieties to a great degree. The original desire was to raise the standard of design of Britain’s industrial produce in an artistic and scientific sense, was soon accompanied by Prime Minister Lord John Russell’s concern to celebrate commercial liberalism and Free Trade, the liberal view of the advantages of the British political and social model, the East India Company’s conviction of the wealth of the empire in terms of raw materials, the Church’s belief in God’s benevolence, and so on.
The result of this situation was a display with a variety of purposes and often containing discordant themes. Hence, the Exhibition could incorporate elements of patriotism and even bigotry while trumpeting the value of internationalism and universal peace. The original intentions of the close circle round Prince Albert were overlaid by those involved in the Exhibition’s wider organisation. Further interpretations were offered by press and public, and were not rejected but instead tolerated and even courted by the Royal Commission. So the meaning of the Great Exhibition can not be reduced to one explanation alone. Another result was the popularity of the Exhibition: while observers disagreed with each other, the compromises of the Royal Commission ensured that people talked about it. Negative reactions were also valuable in rooting the Exhibition in the national consciousness.
The variety of interpretations put forward and the discussion that took place regarding them was a major event in the formation of a British national identity. A nation was on display.
On the other hand, there were a variety of ways in which the Exhibition provoked further disintegration and partition in British society. For example, class-consciousness became more defined as a result of contact at the Exhibition and London’s difference from the provinces was revisited during the process of its organisation. Certain sectors of British society were excluded from the discussion – notably the radical working classes and much of Ireland. Protestants and Catholics renewed old antipathies in their critiques of Gothic furniture or their commentaries on differences between southern and northern European exhibits. And, as mentioned, contradictions abounded in the message broadcast from the Crystal Palace in its original setting.
However, despite all this, in general, the Exhibition and the discussion surrounding it helped create and disseminate a loosely defined set of values. A consensus of sorts about what was British was the result.
Putting forth a historical thesis and substantiating it always involves the danger of selectivity or over-emphasis, but, broadly speaking, the Great Exhibition’s value was an exercise in self- reflection on the part of the British. Aesthetic reformers were afraid of the social consequences of declining standards of design, and were convinced that aesthetic education bred social harmony just as increased profits would put food on the table. The governments of Peel and Russell faced an ugly social situation in the 1840s, and were desperate to rebuild respect among the masses for government and to dispel the rift that had opened between the manufacturing classes and the landed interests. The continental revolutions in 1848 created a real sense of paranoia in political circles in Britain, and concentrated many minds on the value of an event that could uplift and unify the whole country.
One figure to whom the social question was apparent was Prince Albert. Albert’s reluctance to become involved in the Exhibition at first – in contrast to the popular wisdom of its being his project- stemmed not just from a finely tuned sense of the fragility of his own position in British constitutional life but also a conviction of the situation of weakness of the monarchy as an institution in Britain.
Certainly, behind Albert’s apparently flippant responses to the fears of Frederick William IV of Prussia that the Exhibition might spark off revolution lay an acute awareness of the political message his involvement in the project was sending to the people, as well as to absolutists abroad. Once the Exhibition’s popularity was assured, he moved to support it openly, in the knowledge that this would constitute a new venture for the monarchy, and that this was an urgent necessity in Britain at this time. The monarchy would be seen to be dirtying its hands in industry, and working for the good of the masses. This would extend beyond the symbolic to a personal involvement quite repugnant to foreign monarchs: Queen Victoria’s presence at the opening ceremony, walking unprotected before thousands of people, caused a sensation abroad because it was a death-defying show of confidence of the monarch in her people as well as a demonstration of the unity of the monarchy with industry.
The role of Free Trade deserrves prominence too. Note the equivocation on this subject of the Exhibition organisers. They were keen to include all sections of Britain in the project, for financial reasons as well as to help calm social differences, and so resisted connections of the Exhibition with Free Trade in their rhetorical pronouncements and any official correspondence. Still, there is an ambiguity in an identification of the Exhibition as a Free Trade exercise: the Exhibition organisers (dishonestly?) arguing that the Exhibition had nothing to do with Free Trade, when it obviously did. Notable protectionists were included on the Royal Commission, but the mere fact that Peel was not only involved from the start, but also served as an important back-room fixer in the early stages of the Exhibition’s organisation points to a concrete connection with Free Trade. Peel served as a conduit to Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister, who was seriously worried by the danger of a protectionist backlash at this time, and was keen to see something done which would consolidate the Free Trade legislation of 1846-8. Also the Royal Commission included Lord Stanley for the non-Peelite conservatives. But it has to be said that Stanley’s protectionism was weak, and his credentials as a spokesman for landed interests were already being publicly questioned. The Exhibition would serve for him, as well as for many other conservatives (including Disraeli), as the scene of his conversion to Free Trade. Note the efforts the Exhibition’s organisers undertook to include all parties, but what Peel, Russell, and even Albert, were aiming for was a new consensus in the wake of the transition to Free Trade; in other words, to perpetuate it.
The social question and Free Trade are two important dimensions of the significance of the Exhibition. Finally, for consideration is the international angle. The Exhibitiobn may be seen to demonstrate the image British people had of foreigners, and how they felt they differed from them. In fact, the British prejudices and views on foreigners here are part of the forging of nationla identity. Conisder the level of foreign involvement in the Exhibition: how foreign countries arranged their exhibitions, what foreigners thought of the event, and the impact it had abroad. One of the long-held popular notions about the Exhibition; that it was a British affair. We have to remember that half of the building was devoted to foreign goods, and even a large part of the British section consisted of imperial produce. (The same effect is produced by a cursory saunter through the Victoria and Albert Museum, of course). The Exhibition’s organisers – and Albert particularly so – were concerned not just that British manufacturers should see foreign artistic produce, but that the Exhibition should have an economic and political message abroad, and thus they went to great lengths to involve foreign countries. The post-revolutionary economic and political circumstances in North America and Europe, arguably, meant the Exhibition had results there greater than might otherwise have been the case – for example in terms of technology transfer or the stabilisation of regimes.
So though, ultimately, the Exhibition’s significance lay in its formulation of Britain’s view of itself and that sense of ‘Britishness’, .it also encompassed foreigners’ perceptions of this moderately liberal, industrialised and commercially permissive country. Indeed, while it served as a spring-board for internationalism in many forms, and was arguably an important milestone in the process of globalisation, the Great Exhibition also did much to solidify senses of national unity and divergence abroad, and not just in Britain.