Several weeks ago, My Own True Love and I ventured out into a frozen Chicago to attend an exhibition about the Columbian Exposition at the Field Museum. A meta-exhibit if there ever was one, Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair deals with the changing nature of how we think about the world around us and the intellectual roots of many of today’s academic disciplines. It takes a quick glance at the colonial (and fundamentally racist) roots of anthropology, but it ignores the fact that the very idea of a World’s Fair was a by-product of British imperialism.
Which brings us to the exhibition popularly known as the Crystal Palace*: the first of the international exhibitions of industry and technology that came to be called World’s Fairs. Organized under the direction of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1851, the Crystal Palace made no attempt to hide the fact that it was an imperial exhibition. It was explicitly designed to be a celebration of Great Britain’s position as the “workshop of the world”.
Exhibits were requested from all over the world, but over half of the 14,000 exhibits represented Britain and its colonies. A 24-ton block of coal stood outside the entrance, an appropriate symbol of the industrial revolution that the exhibition celebrated. Exhibits included machinery, crafts, fine arts, and wonders such as the Koh-i-noor Diamond, on loan from Queen Victoria herself. The arched Centre Transept housed the world’s largest organ and was used as both circus tent and concert hall. The park surrounding the exhibition hall held copies of statues from around the world, a replica lead mine, and the first exhibition of life-size models of dinosaurs.
The name “Crystal Palace” was coined by the satirical magazine Punch as a commentary on the exhibition hall designed by Joseph Paxton, a gardener with a flair for building glass hot-houses. Built in less than nine months, the exhibition hall was itself a monument to British innovation and technology. Essentially a giant greenhouse, its framework of cast iron columns and girders was built with parts pre-fabricated in Birmingham. The nearly 300,000 panes of glass that made up its walls and roof were larger than anything constructed before.
The exhibition drew over six million visitors between May 1 and October 15. Prince Albert, like many later exhibition promoters who would imitate his event, emphasized its educational value. Most visitors agreed with Punch that the Exhibition was “Britannia’s great party”–and that a good time was had by all.
* It’s official name was the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry if All Nations”. Catchy, huh?