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The Great Exhibition of 1851 Essay

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2020


The significance of the Great Exhibition of 1851 has been discussed from a number of different perspectives. As of today, it became a commonplace practice to refer to this Exhibition as having been subliminal of the very spirit of the Victorian era, which in turn never ceased being reflective of people’s belief in rationality, as the driving force of progress. This, of course, prompts many historians and social scientists to suggest that the exhibition in question should be deemed nothing short of the hallmark of modernity, as we know it. As Bailey noted, “The Crystal Palace and its panorama of exhibits achieved a dramatic magnification of the delusional optics of capitalist modernity” (2001, p. 675).

Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that the Great Exhibition of 1851 appears to have contained a number of insights into what would be the developments of the 20th century. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while promoting the idea that world fairs, such as the one of 1851, can indeed be referred to as the ‘microcosms of modernity’.

Body of the paper

As it was implied in the Introduction, the Great Exhibition of 1851 does relate to other industrial exhibitions that took place in the aftermath of it. The reason for this is that there were many themes and motifs to this particular exhibition, which during the course of the 20th century, became deeply embedded in the very philosophy of what is now being referred to as ‘world expos’. The main of them had to do with the ideas of:

  1. The presumed natural dominance of the West over the rest of the world. One of the most notable aspects of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was its sheer magnitude. While attending it, people were able to observe about 14.000 of the exhibited installations. Most of them were closely affiliated with the most innovative (as for the middle of the 19th century) methods of industrial production. The number of visitors that attended the Exhibition, throughout the course of its duration, accounted for six million. At the time, the so-called Crystal Palace, made out of steel and glass, where the exhibits were actually harboured, was considered nothing short of the marvel of British architectural thought (Auerbach, 1999). This, of course, could not result in anything else but in producing a strong ‘hegemonic’ effect upon visitors – while exposed to the Crystal Palace and its installations, people were tempted to assume that Western countries (particularly the UK) had a ‘natural right’ to rule over the world, which in turn ensured the validity of the late 19th century’s colonial discourse. As Meaux pointed out, “This is the program the exhibitions (such as that of 1851) boast of – the industrious talent of man (white, male!) before proudly turning colonial” (2012, p. 66). Given the fact that, as of today, despite being referred to as ‘developing’, many countries in the world continue to remain de facto colonised by Western transnational corporations, there can be only a few doubts that it is fully appropriate to discuss of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in conjunction with what account for the realities of a contemporary living.
  2. The technology-driven division of labour being the key to generating the continually increased amounts of the so-called ‘surplus product’ (Marx & Engels, 1848). Many of the Exhibition’s installations were concerned with allowing visitors to attain a better understanding of what the concept of the ‘cycles of industrial production’ stands for, such as the fully functional cotton-spinning mill. In its turn, this resulted in legitimising the Industrialisation-induced division of labour within these cycles (to generate additional wealth), on one hand, and in justifying the 19th century’s methodologies of capitalist exploitation, on the other. What it means is that the Great Exhibition of 1851 was indirectly responsible for the emergence of Marxism, in the sense of illustrating the validity of the Marxist thesis about how the ‘surplus product’ comes into existence. In other words, the exhibition in question marks the time when the process of designing political ideologies became essentially the subject of the on-going technological progress.
  3. The power of science/rationality to transform the world into a better place to live. As it was mentioned earlier, the Great Exhibition of 1851 can be seen as the actual embodiment of the Victorian outlook on the surrounding social reality, as such that can be perfected by the mean of science. As one of the Exhibition’s contemporaries (Charles Babbage) pointed out, “The Exposition is calculated to promote and increase the free interchange of raw materials and manufactured commodities between all the nations of the earth… It is the interest of every people, that all other nations should advance in knowledge, in industrial skill, in taste, and in science” (Kemper, 2000, para. 11). Essentially the same idea continued to serve as the conceptual foundation for organising ‘world expos’ up until today. Apparently, they never ceased to be considered as such that contribute to the cause of humanity’s advancement.

Nevertheless, despite the clearly cosmopolitical sounding of the earlier mentioned ideas, promoted by the Great Exhibition of 1851, there was another notable aspect to it – the fact that, in the technical sense of this word, this exhibition was meant to serve the purpose of demonstrating Britain’s technological supremacy over the rest of the nation-participants (Trinder, 2013). In other words, the Exhibition’s impact cannot be discussed outside of the clearly nationalistic agenda, on the part of its organisers. It is understood, of course, that this creates a certain paradox. After all, the notion of ‘nationalism’ does not quite correlate with the notion of ‘intellectual/scientific advancement’ – at least in the formal sense of this word.

Nevertheless, despite this clearly paradoxical subtlety of the Great Exhibition of 1851, its themes and motifs proved thoroughly consistent with the 20th century’s seemingly illogical twists of history. For example, even though that, throughout the initial phase of this century, the most powerful Western nations, such as the UK, Germany, France and Russia, continued to proclaimed their adherence to the ideals of science-driven progress, it did not prevent them from declaring war on each other in 1914 and 1939. In both cases, people’s endowment with the nationalistic sentiment (the relic of primeval/tribal mentality) did play an important role in triggering the hostilities.

This provides us with even better understanding of the suggestion that the Great Exhibition of 1851 should be referred to as the ‘microcosm of modernity’. Apparently, the person that came up with it, wanted to emphasise that, just as it happened to be the case with the history of the 20th century, commonly referred to in conjunction with the term ‘modernity’, this Exhibition was highly controversial – even though that at the time when it was held, most people remained rather oblivious of this fact. On one hand, it promoted scientific progress, as the instrument of making it possible for Westerners to enjoy the continually improved standards of living. On the other, however, it implied that the concerned process goes hand in hand with the process of people in the non-Western parts of the world being mercilessly exploited and that this situation is perfectly normal (Johansen, 1996).

Whereas, having been formally dedicated to benefiting humanity, in the sense of allowing it to take advantage of the newly emerging technologies, it added acuteness to the geopolitical competition between European nations, which eventually led to the outbreak of the WW1. Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that the main ‘microcosmic’ quality of the Great Exhibition of 1851 is its discursive ambivalence – something that indeed makes this Exhibition closely associated with the notion of modernity (Goldstein, 2004).


I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to the idea that the Exhibition in question can be described subliminal of the ways of modernity, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, along with making it possible for people observe the materially embodied emanations of the 19th century’s scientific genius, the exhibited installations were providing visitors with the qualitative insight into what would be the 20th century’s ‘things to come’. Thus, it will be fully appropriate, on my part, to conclude this paper by suggesting that it, in order for us to be able to realise the actual significance of the Great Exhibition of 1851, we need to pay attention what accounted for the event’s phenomenological aspects.


Auerbach, J 1999, The Great Exhibition of 1851: a Nation on display, Yale University Press, New Haven. Web.

Bailey, P 2001, ‘The Great Exhibition of 1851: a nation on display (book review)’, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 73, no. 3, pp. 675-677. Web.

Goldstein, D 2004, . Web.

Johansen, S 1996, ‘The Great Exhibition of 1851: a precipice in time?’, Victorian Review, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 59-64. Web.

Kemper, J 2000, Internationalism and the search for a national identity: Britain and the Great Exhibition of 1851. Web.

Marx, K & Engels, F 1848, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Web.

Meaux, C 2012, Art at the time of world expos, Les Presses du Réel, Yeosu. Web.

Trinder, B 2013, Britain’s Industrial Revolution: the making of a manufacturing people, 1700-1870, Carnegie Publishing, London. Web.

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