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  • The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays
  • Roy R. Behrens
The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays edited by Louise Purbrick. Manchester Univ. Press, Manchester, U.K., 2001. 232 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN 0-7190-5592-X.

It is because of the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (the first international World's Fair) that the Modern era in industrial design and architecture is commonly said to have started in 1851. Erected temporarily in Hyde Park in London, this 18-acre structure (the world's largest building at the time) was made of glass with iron struts, all of which had been prefabricated elsewhere, then shipped to the site and assembled. It was nicknamed "the Crystal Palace," partly because it resembled (and in some ways also functioned as) a huge, resplendent greenhouse, with live historic trees inside. In the first 5 months, nearly 6.5 million people streamed in to witness 14,000 displays and demonstrations from throughout the world (nearly half from England) of the latest devices and products to come from the Industrial Revolution, among them the Colt revolver, Thonet bentwood furniture, and stereoscopic photographs. Arts and Crafts founder William Morris, who was 17 years old when the event opened, got as far as the door with his parents, then sat on a bench and refused to go in, because, he said, it was "wonderfully ugly." It is now generally agreed that, while the building's structure and the process of erecting it were astonishing, the products inside were a mixture at best. The Great Exhibition of 1851 is a collection of essays on various social aspects of the Crystal Palace by scholars from varying backgrounds, who take turns addressing such issues as the fair's appeal to the working class; the event as satirically followed in Punch; the socio-economic strata of those who attended; the concurrent promotion of technical and mechanical drawing ("an industrial vision"); and reactions to the exhibition on India, regarded then as the British Empire's "jewel in the crown." For anyone interested in design or architectural and cultural history, there are portions of all of these essays that are both surprising and informative. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is distressing because its page layout (or form) is greatly at odds with its content (or function). The layout, as Morris might argue, is blatantly ugly (and not wonderfully) and borders on being outrageously dull. Inadvertently then, at the end we are faced with the question(s): Has there been no progress in design since the Crystal Palace? Have we learned nothing in 150 years? And, if not, then why publish these essays? [End Page 159]

Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0362, U.S.A. E-mail: <>.

Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review



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