Review of Jeffrey A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg (eds.) Britain, the Empire and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Paul Young, Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order

Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851, edited by Jeffrey A. Auerbach and Peter H. Hoffenberg, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008, 238 pp., illustrated, £55 (hardback) ISBN 9780754662410, US$99.95 (e-book) ISBN 9780754692310

Globalization and the Great Exhibition. The Victorian
New World Order by Paul Young, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 239 pp., £45 (hardback) ISBN 9780230520752

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations was held in 1851 in a vast temporary iron and glass structure more than 550 metres long which was hastily designed and built for the occasion in Hyde Park, London, and soon nick-named the Crystal Palace. Over 13,000 exhibitors from forty countries or territories exhibited more than 100,000 objects to at least six million visitors. The interest surrounding the event shows no signs of abating; just as the Exhibition itself can be seen to mark a milestone if not a turning-point in the nineteenth century, so too its sesquicentenary has had a dramatic impact on the scholarship of the event. In the lead-up to this anniversary, and subsequently, the Exhibition has been reconsidered from a variety of approaches and with renewed vigour. The numerous publications dealing with the Great Exhibition which have appeared since the late 1990s are evidence of an enduring fascination with an event which, conveniently positioned at the mid-point of the century, summed up and broadcast industrial and technological achievement and indicated possible paths for continued development.1 That interest is not confined to the Great Exhibition or to Great Britain, but extends to all manifestations of the phenomenon known variously as expositions universelles, world’s fairs and exhibitions of art and industry. By 1900 such events had become a constant in the global calendar with exhibitions taking place on all continents.

The Great Exhibition, although not the first of its type, was certainly the most influential for the scale of its display, the success of its management2 and the impact of its various messages, that is to say the meanings which were attributed to the event at the time and in its afterlife. Those meanings are integral to the new volume of essays and the book under review here, both of which seek to open up the debate yet further, considering the exhibition in a global context and in relation to globalization which are seen as separate issues.

In Auerbach’s and Hoffenberg’s collection, the nine admirable and readable contributions are divided between those considering the participation in the event of specific countries and those dealing with broader issues. The first category may be further divided between those essays relating to countries within the British Empire – Ireland, New Zealand and Australia – and those outside – Russia, the German states, Greece, the Ottoman Empire and China. Among the broader issues is one that has long been of concern to social historians, the connections between the Exhibition, class and social reform particularly in relation to the Exhibition-goers who attended on the reduced cost ‘shilling days’, and who proved themselves to be enthusiastic and well behaved, to the surprise of some (27-46).
A principal aim of the collection is to consider, in the light of various post-colonial approaches, the ways in which the Exhibition was believed to have brought the world to London, the periphery to the metropole. Victorian commentators in the metropole generally sought to make sense of the event as a whole, whereas the essayists here show the applicability of the recent view that ‘localised theories and historically specific accounts’ can illuminate the many ‘articulations of colonising and counter–colonial representations’ (quoted, xvii-xviii). One conclusion which emerges clearly from this is the difficulty of now formulating a synoptic appraisal of the event in the way that earlier writers readily believed possible, even as they struggled to get to grips with the abundance and variety of objects on display. Young would seem to agree; in his Postscript he quotes Buzard, Childers and Gillooly to the effect that, ‘In a variety of fields, scholars today are arguing for a view of multiple modernities, qualified Enlightenments, and ‘discrepant cosmopolitanisms’’ that will allow the revision of ‘dominant Victorian accounts’ (quoted, 198).
In considering how Ireland was represented in the exhibition, Purbrick is one of the few authors to deal closely with the ways in which some individual exhibits were taken to stand for their source countries; similar analysis for other countries would have been welcome, all the more so given the call for localised and specific studies mentioned above. She reveals the slipperiness of colonial terminology in the Exhibition context, Ireland being referred to alternatively as a ‘province’, a ‘sister isle’ a ‘sister land’ a ‘sister kingdom’, the ‘emerald isle’ or the ‘Green Isle’, even a ‘nation’ (55). That each of these means something different underlines the complications involved in identifying and assessing the relationship between Britain and Ireland. These inconsistent views are found in some of the numerous official and unofficial publications which were generated by the event. It would be worthwhile to compare them with the views of the event which were published in Ireland, given that intriguing use is made of Australian and Russian newspapers by Peter Hoffenberg and David Fisher respectively in order to show how the contributions of those countries were represented at home. Britain may have found itself to be at the centre of attention and assumed itself to be the yardstick of achievement, but in Hoffenberg’s view a consequence of the Exhibition was, paradoxically, to foster counter-colonial ideas. Participating in overseas exhibitions and later organising their own, he writes, helped ‘colonists in Melbourne, New South Wales and South Australia [to] imagine, envision and reconstruct their identities as overseas settlers … and eventually as Australian nationalists’ (120).
Paul Young has expanded the theme of the essay he contributes to the collection into one of the strands of a persuasive book focused on globalization. His core argument is that the Exhibition was promoted as a nineteenth-century vision of an ultimate world order that was led by Britain but sanctioned by divine providence. Whereas Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ saw the combination of liberal economics and liberal democracy as a valid and universal mode of existence, in Young’s view the Exhibition offered an end of history ‘through free-market economics alone’ (21). As Young acknowledges, the economic aims and imperatives of the Exhibition have often been touched on before in the literature on the Exhibition, but his book addresses them closely. It is his view that globalization, ‘the integration of all global communities into a supposedly free-and-open world economy’ (4), fostered by concepts of political economy and driven by mid-nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, was made manifest as a practice and a model in and by the Exhibition. The discussion is well nuanced with each contention supporting this approach balanced by contemporary views which criticised it. Whilst the Exhibition was often seen as a triumph, some thought that Britain stood to lose not gain from the global free-trade industrial capitalism which it embodied (e.g. 149).
Drawing on the diverse work of, amongst others, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault and Thomas Richards, Young interweaves theories with analysis of some examples of the Exhibition literature and the poetry and fiction of the era. In Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’, for example, Young notes presages of the eurocentric and imperialist ambitions he finds underlying the Exhibition (84-8). Young’s discussion is informed by ideas and information located in other publications ranging from official catalogues, reports and supporting materials to popular guidebooks, reminiscences and commemmorative poems, and the Victorianist’s old reliable, the satirical response of Punch. Many of the texts examined by Young may have been conceived by their authors and publishers to be as ephemeral as the exhibition itself. Nevertheless they provide opinions, prescriptions and interpretations which are not available elsewhere and so help to show how the social and intellectual atmosphere surrounding the Exhibition was articulated and consumed.
Amongst the most persuasive passages are those in which Young discusses specific terms and concepts associated with the Exhibition. Apparently applied as a kind of descriptive short-hand, some evocative orientalising metaphors stand out. For example, references to the Exhibition as a ‘Babel’ (esp. 47-53), or as being infused with associations from the Arabian (or Thousand-And-One) Nights (120-5), are especially intriguing. The use of the word ‘Babel’ was ambivalent. Not only did it allow a moralising tone to be applied through the use of a Biblical allusion (thus endorsing an ideological benchmark), but it also conveyed a sense of the exhibition as the occasion of potential unity amongst nations and peoples in a challenge to God’s judgement at Shinar, where the introduction of a multiplicity of languages was used to sow confusion and destroy collective strength. In the account in Genesis (chs.10-11) the possession by humanity of only one language was seen as a threat. In 1851 it was as if the world was coming to speak, if not yet fluently, the common language of free trade, albeit under the flag of imperialism. This was alluded to by the clergyman, Thomas Binney, who, whilst admitting that international Exhibition-goers would be mutually incomprehensible, still claimed that ‘all will be able to read and interpret what will be written everywhere … and to comprehend the import of the common voice that shall seem to be arising from the objects around them … [speaking] of oneness, brotherhood, … the folly and wickedness of men not “living together in unity”’ – under the new world order of free trade, that is (quoted, 46).
References to the Arabian Nights, another leitmotif of debate, traded on popular awareness of an orientalist text full of exotic and romantic associations and characters such as Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. This meant that the experience and imagination of the reader was doing some of the authors’ work for them – but on the other hand such references conjure allusions to a display of great magnitude, variety, richness of colours and textures, and exoticism. They also convey a luxurious and indulgent mode of life and a fantasy of the vast wealth of the Orient. Nowhere was this more apparent than in references to the Kohinoor diamond which was one of the most frequently discussed exhibits, despite being a rather disappointing sight (125-32). In Richard Horne’s contemporaneous story, ‘A penitent confession’ (Household Words, 2 August 1851), a thief steals the Kohinoor diamond from the Exhibition only to realise that he didn’t know what to do with it. For Young, this predicament begs the question, why then did Britain possess India (130-1) ? Young thus draws some pointed connections between objects displayed in the Exhibition, the reactions they inspired and the climate of ambition in which the event, a ‘globalized fantasy’ (198), took place.

1. E.g.: J.A. Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851. A Nation on Display (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1999); J.R. Davis, The Great Exhibition (Stroud: Sutton, 1999); M. Leapman, The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation (London: Headline, 2001); L. Purbrick (ed.), The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001); J. Buzard, J.W. Childers and E. Gillooly (eds.), Victorian Prism: Refractions of the Crystal Palace (London: Virginia UP, 2007); P.H. Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (London: California UP, 2001); H. Hobhouse, The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition. Art, Science and Productive Industry: a History of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (London: Athlone, 2002); J. Meyer, Great Exhibitions: London, New York, Paris, Philadelphia, 1851-1900 (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2006). Mention might also be made of: C.H. Voorsanger and J.K. Howat (eds.), Art and the Empire City. New York, 1825-1861 (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2000), which contains much on the 1853 New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations; a bilingual volume, F. Bosbach and J.R. Davis (eds.), Die weltausstellung von 1851 und ihre Folgen/The Great Exhibition and its Legacy, Prinz-Albert-Studien/Prince Albert Studies vol.20 (Munich: Saur, 2002) and a visual resource, invaluable to commodity fetishists, The Great Exhibition Sale (London: Sotheby’s) sale catalogue, 31 October 2006.

2. The profits are still being spent: see Hobhouse and
Philip McEvansoneya
Trinity College Dublin

Philip McEvansoneya is lecturer in the history of art at Trinity College Dublin. His numerous articles include one on P.H. Calderon’s The Renunciation of St Elizabeth of Hungary in Journal of Victorian Culture 1.2 (Autumn 1996).

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