The legacy of The Great Exhibition – 170 years on

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On 1 May 1851, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations opened in a huge, purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. 170 years later, The Great Exhibition’s design legacies are still being felt. Claire Blakey, our Curator of 19th-century Decorative Arts, explores the story of the event through objects in our collections.

The exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria accompanied by Albert, Prince Consort, who had been instrumental as one of the creators of the first international exhibition of manufactured products. Raw materials and machinery were also on display, including showcasing the production of cotton, from spinning to finished cloth.

Panel of woven silk depicting Queen Victoria: English, c.1855 – 1860
Panel of woven silk depicting Prince Albert: English, c.1855 – 1860

Despite Britain’s position as a leading manufacturing nation, there were real concerns about the quality of British design and fears that British manufacturers would lose trade to other countries. These fears had seen the government adopt a variety of initiatives to improve design education, including setting up new design schools. The exhibition was to provide another chance to inspire the country’s workforce with groups of factory workers visiting on excursion trains from all over Britain.

‘To be aware of our deficiencies is the first step towards amending them; and there is no maxim safer than that which teaches us not to undervalue our rivals: our Industrial Exhibition will have had this good effect at least.’

The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue. The Industry of All Nations, London, 1851.
A circular image showing hoards of visitors admiring exhibitions in The Crystal Palace at The Great Exhibition. The crowd seem to be watching a performance on a bandstand-like structure. The huge room is lush with leafy plants, and a tall fountain is flowing.
Earthenware pot lid transfer-printed with a view of ‘The Interior of the Grand International Building of 1851’: English, Staffordshire, c.1851  

The exhibition ran for six months until October 1851 and was a huge success: over six million people paid to visit, about a third of the British population. 

A man dressed in a Royal Standard-inspired outfit pulls back a curtain and invites a family to look into a peep hole. 'Telescopic view of The Great Exhibition, 1851'
Lane’s Telescopic View of the Interior of the Great Industrial Exhibition, printed and hand-coloured peep-show, printed by C. Moody, London, 1851

For the millions of visitors, an important part of their day out was buying a memento to take home. A vast range of souvenirs was produced, from transfer-printed ceramics to engraved shells, as well as catalogues, guides and books.

A round flat brass and copper inkwell with a spherical handle in the middle. The 'flat' section is decorated with scenes that include a potter and a weaver at work, with names of artists, inventors and designers in a ribbon around the edge.
Brass and copper commemorative inkwell: English, Birmingham, by Elkington & Co., designed by John Leighton, c. 1851. This inkwell is decorated with scenes that include a potter and a weaver at work, with names of artists, inventors and designers in a ribbon around the edge.

Despite the reference to ‘All Nations’ in its title, the focus of The Great Exhibition was firmly on Britain and Europe. The Indian Court, with its howdah displayed on a stuffed elephant and the Koh-i-noor diamond — the largest known precious stone at the time — was one of the most popular sections. Its displays, and by extension those of the rest of the British Empire, were created with the aim of presenting them very much as a resource to be exploited and a market to sell British goods to.

Even in the Raw Materials division, only a minority of the material on display came from outside Britain and Europe. An exception can be seen in the form of a sample of porcelain clay from Jingdezhen, China which was presented to the museum in 1853, alongside other samples which had been on display at the Exhibition. In the Fine Arts division, this absence was even greater. Accordingly, the prizes awarded during the Exhibition went overwhelmingly to British and European exhibits.

A rectangular slab of porcelain clay, branded with Chinese characters.
Sample of porcelain clay from the Great Exhibition: China, Jingdezhen

Despite its commercial success, the Exhibition was not seen as triumphant in terms of British design. Many critics were dismayed by what they felt was the low quality of many of the British exhibits. However, the profits of The Great Exhibition were used to create a cultural district in South Kensington, which included the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall, establishing a permanent hub for British design and culture in the city.

Here in Edinburgh, The Great Exhibition’s legacy can be seen in the founding of the Industrial Museum of Scotland in 1854 (now part of National Museums Scotland; find more about our history here.) Much like the museums in South Kensington, the aim was to improve design education and the quality of industrial goods.

The government Department of Science and Art aimed to educate the public in what it considered ‘good taste’ in design. The inspirational and educational power of the museum displays were seen as a vital part of this. The decades that followed were to see many new artistic movements that transformed design.

Deep Blue, Red and Gold plate decorated with leafy organic design. 'Waste Not Want Not' is painted in gold around the brim of the plate.
Stoneware plate inscribed ‘Waste Not Want Not’: English, Staffordshire, Stoke-upon-Trent, by Minton & Co., designed by AWN Pugin, c. 1850. Pugin was part of the movement to reform design and was a champion for the Gothic Revival, which re-imaged the decorative styles of the Middle Ages.

Today, our collections and displays allow us to tell a much broader and international design story, showing the inter-connectedness of both techniques and designs. We continue to collect in these areas to better represent these stories and to move away from the very one-sided, selective view given by the Great Exhibition 170 years ago.

Most of the objects in this post are currently on display at the National Museum of Scotland in our Design For Living gallery (Level 5). Book your visit today and enjoy our world class collections in person.

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