The Great Exhibition

Visitors of the 1851 Great Exhibition marvelled at the biggest diamond in the world, a carriage drawn by kites, furniture made of coal, and a set of artificial teeth fitted with a swivel devise that allowed the user to yawn without displacing them.

BBC’s In Our Time this week discusses the 1851 Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace. Jeremy Black, Hermione Hobhouse and Clive Elmsley discuss questions such as:

How did the Exhibition crystallise a particular moment in early Victorian Britain? In what way did it capitalise on the dawn of mass travel and greater levels of international co-operation? How did fears of revolutionary Europe define the policing and organisation of the event? And how far, if at all, did the Great Exhibition go in blurring class distinctions?

Listen online or download the podcast at In Our Time.

I recently bought Pieter van Wesemael’s Architecture and Delight: A Socio-Historical Analysis of World Exhibitions as a Didactic Phenomenon (1798-1851-1970), a book that I would like to give a little plug here for its layout as well as its contents. The book devotes attention to the architecture, urban planning, as well as the didacticism of World Exhibitions. Here is an appetizing snippet from the introduction:

[World exhibitions] played a role as an intermediary between high and low culture, between upper, middle and lower class, and between trade, industry, technology, science, and art on the one hand, and the lay person’s more direct world of experience on the other. In the rapidly changing world — in material, economic, and socio-cultural aspects — of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they made a fundamental contribution to the creation of a new consciousness of class or group, each with its own self-image and culture, and nourished the evolution of modern capitalistic, democratic society with its mass culture. […] [They were] geared towards the broad predominantly conservative middle classes that had to be informed and convinced. It is precisely this facet — a small elite who created a modern identity and culture for the rising middle classes — that makes the phenomenon of world exhibitions so interesting in didactic terms.

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