restricted access The Great Exhibition Of 1851: A Precipice In Time?
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THE GREAT EXHIBITION OF 1851: A PRECIPICE IN TIME? Sylvi Johansen University of Saskatchewan. Although it is probably fair to say that in traditional renderings the Victorian period has a story-line without sharp breaks or discontinuities, it is not unusual to present the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a defining moment. History has many such defining events. These are often convenient landmarks, beacons around which we structure our historical narratives, in both scholarly and popular representations. But as our choice of defining events forms and shapes the past so too do the rhetorical conveniences of the past itself influence our renditions of it Such a dynamic, I wUl argue, is at work in the case of the Great Exhibition. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a magnificent event that remains of significant interest to Victorian Studies. In the big glass house in Hyde Park, the Victorians celebrated themselves and left posterity with powerful images of who they were or wanted to be. We might think of the impressive Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, die many exhibits, die machinery section, the rows of statues as weU as die opening festivities in May, the crowd gathering during the shilUng days, and die queen mingling witii die commoners. In addition to die papers left by the Royal Commission that arranged the exhibition and the official descriptions of it, an enormous proliferation of written material - books, poems, pamphlets, andjournal and newspaper articles ~ pondered die significance of the event The celebration of greatness is a common theme of diese writings. Seemingly, die Exhibition was infused witii significance in scientific, reUgious, political, cultural and personal terms. The Great Exhibition was seen as a celebration of Britain's achievement, its positive transformation to the stage where it could build a palace of prefabricated glass and iron to display die preeminence of its own industry over die rest of die world. Among otiier tilings, die Exhibition Victorian Review 22.1 (Summer 1996) 60Victorian Review thereby justified Britain's move towards free trade. In showing a cooperative industrial sector and a working class which could gather without incident, riot or dreaded revolution, the Exhibition also justified recent political reforms. Forty years later, Thomas Hardy called the Great Exhibition a "precipice in time" (179) - a designation developed by many historians who view the Exhibition as a defining event in British history. Staging an international exhibition on tiiat scale indicated Britain's high level of confidence in its own political and economic structures. The exhibition introduced the so-caUed age of equipoise - the foUowing twenty years of economic growth and social stability. In short, die event signified tiiat Britain was becoming a mature capitalist society. But these accounts, which we might caU traditional, are based upon the celebratory representations of the Great Exhibition, and are therefore relatively uncritical reproductions of the Victorians' selfrepresentations . Many of the accounts were published in the 1950s around the time of the Festival of Britain (Ffrench, Gibbs-Smith, Fay, Dodds). This was also the time that the first Victorian Societies were founded, marking the start of Victoriana. The celebratory accounts of the Great Exhibition went hand in hand with the general celebration of die period as such. But accounts of the period gradually have become less acquiescent and more inquisitorial. We want to probe it not merely to accept it to recognize problematic relations and to unpack meanings and designations assigned to things and events, both by the Victorians and by ourselves. Recent historical approaches, informed by post modernism, post structuralism, and die "linguistic turn," emphasize the textuality of the past. Those subscribing to the new methodologies consider die rhetoric, style, and power relations tiiat might shape the representations of the past Valuable insights can thus be gained by treating textual representations not primarily as reflections of actual historical reaUty, but as bearers of meaning relevant to historical investigation. An understanding of the Great Exhibition entails more than simply repeating the Victorians' own representations; it requires problematizing the representations and focusing on the formative content and thematic intent in stories told about the Great Exhibition. Criticism leveUed against "textuaUsm" charges tiiat its theoretical emphasis makes history inaccessible to a broader audience, including introductory level students...


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