- The Great Exhibition: A Documentary History ed. by Geoffrey Cantor
Primary research on the Great Exhibition of 1851 just got a lot easier thanks to an impressive collection edited by Geoffrey Cantor, The Great Exhibition: A Documentary History. This set promises to be an invaluable resource to [End Page 174] scholars seeking archival sources on the Great Exhibition, as Cantor has collected over a thousand pages of contemporary Victorian documents relating to the event—including official memoranda, parliamentary debates, periodical articles, journal and diary entries, fictional accounts, poems, handbills, and religious tracts—and organized them into seven sections in four volumes. For each section, Cantor includes an introductory overview of the relevant documents as well as a forward to each entry that explains the context for the document that follows. While these forwards usefully provide the kind of context and detail that is not easily found in texts surveying so large a topic, Cantor is careful not to interpret the documents within the collection for the reader. Consequently, the collection clearly is proposed as a research tool rather than a critical intervention.
Cantor organizes the set roughly chronologically, with the first two sections containing Victorian documents relating to the planning of the exhibition. The documents in section 1, “Organizing the Exhibition,” illustrate the “administrative history” of the exhibition (1: 1), including the Society of Arts’ original plans for the exhibition as well as the Royal Commission’s later planning and designs for the Crystal Palace. Though some of the documents in section 1 highlight attempts by organizers to win support for the exhibition within London and assuage fears relating to it, section 2, “Reactions to the Proposed Exhibit,” is a more useful section for gauging public support and for surveying the “wide range of responses” to the proposed exhibit, “many of which were hostile” (1: ix). This section is one of the most interesting as it clearly exposes the voices not normally included in the standard narrative—those expressing fears that, among other things, the exhibition would expose British manufacturing to foreign competition, that foreigners would undermine the Anglican Church and/or depose the Queen, or that the influx of people would cause food scarcity and a rise in contagious diseases. Documents in this section, like so many others in the set, remind us that the history and cultural impact of the Great Exhibition are complex rather than simple and linear.
The three middle sections contain documents relating to the marketing and reception of the exhibition. Starting with accounts of the impressive state opening ceremony, section 3, “The Opening on May 1851,” includes both formal reports of the proceedings and several personal narratives. Section 4, “Guides to the Exhibition and Other Materials Addressed to Visitors,” includes examples of the plethora of guides that were written to help visitors navigate the overwhelming number and variety of exhibits as well as items commonly distributed to visitors, including musical scores and religious tracts. Here, one finds descriptions of the displays and a sense of how visitors might have prepared for the exhibition. Additionally, entries such as “A Lady’s Glance at the Great Exhibition” make clear that these guides catered to different groups in very different ways (in this case, “ladies” were directed to ignore the machinery and philosophical instruments and instead visit the exhibits [End Page 175] on jewellery, gloves, lace, and fabrics). Best described as a companion piece to section 4, section 5, “Visitors’ Accounts,” provides a survey of visitors’ impressions of the exhibition. Once again, the collection’s strength is its variety: Cantor includes not only entries that cut across classes but also French, German, and American voices.
Finally, the last two sections of the set reflect the closing of the exhibition. The documents in section 4, “Perspectives on the Exhibition,” reflect both the “official” interpretation (by Prince Albert and other organizers) of the significance of the exhibition as well as contemporary reactions to that interpretation. However, the themes and voices in this section will feel familiar to those who have read the documents in...