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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 341-343
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The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display
The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. By Jeffrey A. Auerbach. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Pp. viii+279. $40.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London in 1851, has long been viewed as one of the focal events of the Victorian era, holding up a multifaceted mirror to English society and culture at the high point of England's industrial and technological ascendancy. Following the turbulent period running from the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 through the Reform Act of 1832, the New Poor Law of 1834, and the turmoil of the hungry forties, the Great Exhibition has often seemed to have inaugurated the mid-Victorian era of comparative stability and prosperity. It is all the more surprising, then, that we have had to wait until the end of the twentieth century, for Jeffrey Auerbach's excellent study, to have [End Page 341] a book-length scholarly account of the exhibition's origins, goals, organization, and contemporary meanings.
Enthusiastically supported by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and housed in the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton's vast iron-and-glass edifice assembled in Hyde Park, the Great Exhibition comprehended more than a hundred thousand separate exhibits, submitted by nearly fourteen thousand exhibitors from all over the world. Between its opening on 1 May and its closing on 11 October, more than six million visitors--the equivalent of one-fifth of Great Britain's total population--paid to enter what was in reality the first world's fair. Arousing extravagant praise as well as alarm and skepticism, the Great Exhibition proved successful as both spectacle and enterprise, serving simultaneously as a celebration of manufacturing genius, a "festival of peace," liberalism, and free trade, an influential staging area in the development of modern commodity culture and advertising, and the financial basis for the South Kensington complex of museums and public institutions.
An event of such magnitude inevitably gave rise to a number of myths, contemporary as well as retrospective. Auerbach dispels a number of these, while acknowledging their significance in supplying some of the important public meanings of the exhibition. Chief among them is the notion that the Great Exhibition was conceived as a triumphant display of England's industrial, inventive, and scientific superiority. (Auerbach shows that a more important motivation was to raise the level of English design standards, design education, and taste.) Another is that Prince Albert was the event's leading champion from the start. (Auerbach shows that Albert was canny in timing his support, subordinating his personal interest to astute political readings of the situation.) More broadly, it has been easy to view the Great Exhibition as a nearly inevitable product of its era, in essence exhibiting the English middle classes and their success in turning England into the "workshop of the world." One of the most valuable accomplishments of Auerbach's study is to show exactly how often the plans for the exhibition ran into serious difficulties, and how easily all could have come to naught.
A number of mistaken views also circulated at the time of the exhibition. There was widespread concern, for example, that working-class visitors would prove disruptive, either politically or socially, once the Crystal Palace was thrown open to shilling visitors after 26 May. Indeed, the Duke of Wellington recommended a police force of fifteen thousand to ensure order. As Auerbach carefully shows, however, the shilling entrants proved to be astonishingly orderly and remarkably appreciative, leading to a novel integration of classes at the exhibition--a social mixing, he notes, that simultaneously preserved the requisite degree of social segregation.
There was also fear of foreign visitors. Auerbach has uncovered, for example, a letter to Wellington recommending that troops be hidden in various parts of London, and that church bells be used as a signal to remove [End Page 342] omnibuses from the streets, so that they could not be used as...