Sharon Ament: the Great Exhibition was London’s greatest idea

by Sharon Ament

Sharon Ament is director of the Museum of London. This article was written for Centre For London’s London Ideas project and appears in the first edition of London Ideas magazineOn London is delighted to re-republish it.

For something so fantastical and ephemeral, the Great Exhibition of 1851 has left a remarkable national legacy, both intellectual and physical. The great museums of South Kensington were founded from its profits; a whole chunk of Sydenham was named after the building it was held in; it inspired a series of international world fairs; and it showcased the talents of great engineers and artists. It even had dinosaurs!

It seems we British like a good day out looking at amazing stuff. Other moments of extrovert optimism have followed in the form of national gatherings that excite awe and wonder: the Festival of Britain 100 years later was a worthy successor, the Millennium Dome perhaps less so.

The 1851 Great Exhibition (proper title: Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations) developed out of discussions between Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, and members of The Royal Society of Arts. The designer and inventor Sir Henry Cole, who would become the first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, was instrumental in bringing everything together with lightning speed and on a grand scale.

It took nine months to build the extraordinary Crystal Palace, engineered by Joseph Paxton. The Exhibition, which ran for six months, was self-financing and highly profitable, and epitomised the energy and creativity of our greatest industrial age. It was international: it showcased the latest technologies, ideas, inventions and artistic creations; it was spectacular and galvanising.

For me, the great beauty of the idea was the decision to invest the profits in establishing institutions that furthered its aims and principles, and which now line the aptly named Exhibition Road.

More than 12 million people visit the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A every year, and the museums’ international and scholastic output is phenomenal. Imperial College, the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music all became part of this nexus of institutions in South Kensington.

The body set up to distribute the profits along charitable lines still exists. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which aims to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”, still gives grants, operating out of Imperial.

A colleague of mine, Alex Werner, has written about the Great Exhibition as a vehicle for peace and internationalism, grounded as it was in the beliefs that free trade and economic competition could overcome nationalism and territorial ambition, and that science and technology could improve lives. I am certainly all for science, technology, and internationalism over territorial ambition.

The whole thing was rather egalitarian, with innovative demand-driven ticket pricing: it cost five shillings to visit on Saturdays, with a more popular weekday shilling ticket. 6,039,722 people visited the Great Exhibition, a third of the entire population of Britain and nearly three times that of London. It was so successful that George Cruikshank lampooned it in a cartoon showing Manchester devoid of people, all of them presumably in London.

A huge array of objects was shown and, to this day, two particularly resonate with me. One is a technologically advanced corset made by Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, a staymaker of Berners Street, who, with her husband, invented and patented many improvements to corsets between 1838 and 1860. This is now in the collection of the Museum of London and is an extraordinary reminder of how much women’s bodies were controlled.

The others are the dinosaurs, designed to the specifications of the then scientific theories of Sir Richard Owen. These reconstructions of prehistoric creatures now inhabit an island in Crystal Palace Park. Sir Richard’s theory about the physiology of dinosaurs was wrong: his reconstructions remain a testament to the ever-changing process of science itself, in which hypothesis and theory is tested and changed over time with new evidence. This glorious group of life-size but wrongly configured creatures tantalises our imagination and embodies the fluidity of ideas.

Opposite the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial shows the man himself, Prince Albert, with an Exhibition catalogue in his hand, its statistics enshrined in the stonework alongside him. Wandering back down Exhibition Road you can see the institutions founded to embody the Great Exhibition’s ideals, as well as the many students, visitors and academics who visit them every day – making it, to my mind, London’s greatest idea.

Read the rest of London Ideas magazine here. See what’s on at the Museum of London here and learn about its new home in Smithfield market here. And why not follow Sharon Ament on Twitter too?

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