Audrey Jaffe, “On the Great Exhibition”


This entry considers the Great Exhibition in the context of Victorian England’s developing commodity culture and the forms of attention and distraction produced in relation to it. It discusses the stated purposes of the Exhibition, but is more interested in its experiential qualities: the way the movement of visitors was structured by the layout of hallways and rooms, the effect of the semi-transparent walls, and the sense of bewilderment that appears frequently in visitors’ accounts.

engraving of the Crystal Palace

Figure 1: Engraving, the Crystal Palace as seen from the front

The map iconGreat Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations—its full title—opened on 1 May 1851. It was an event in the history of exhibitions, world’s fairs, consumerism, imperialism, architecture, collections, things, glass, visual culture, attention, inattention, and distraction. Its ostensible purpose, as stated by the organizing commission and various promoters, most notably Prince Albert, was to celebrate the industry and ingeniousness of various world cultures, primarily the British, and to inform and educate the public about the achievement, workmanship, science, and industry that produced the numerous and multifarious objects and technologies on display.

map iconHeld from May to October of 1851, the Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria in the structure built to house it, the Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park, London. It was an “encyclopedic space” (Armstrong 146) covering 26 acres (19 dedicated to the main structure); the building made use of 550 tons of wrought iron, 3,500 tons of cast iron, 30 miles of gutters, 202 miles of sash bars, and over 600,000 feet of wooden flooring, and was enclosed in just under 900,000 feet of glass. Itself a display, a celebration of the labor, materials, and skill involved in its production, it was chiefly intended as a celebration of the objects and technologies produced by various nations, with about half its space dedicated to England and the rest to all the other nations involved. As one of a series of London’s “shows” (see Altick)–a category that included panoramas, dioramas, fairs and collections of various kinds, and were seen as combining entertainment with some form of instruction–it offered both in the form of spectacular representation. Giving producers a forum for showing off their wares, putting goods on display in a way that showcased itself and the phenomena of modern consumerism as much as any of the items on display, the exhibition provided an occasion and opportunity for, as well as training in, the experience of window shopping–one could look but one could not touch–on a mass scale.

Designed by Joseph Paxton, the Crystal Palace was a structure of iron and glass conceptually derived from greenhouses and railway stations, but also resembling the shopping arcades of Paris and London, in all of which a visible, linear framework or skeleton of iron held together stretches of transparent glass, opening the interior to the exterior and vice versa, confusing and inverting traditional senses and experiences of interiority and exteriority. The display of transparency might remind us of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design and Michel Foucault’s later discussion of it (in Discipline and Punish) as a paradigm for a modern culture of internalized surveillance, suggesting that what might be called a “discipline” of modern spectatorship, including such activities as exhibition-going and shopping, was learned and enforced as visitors regarded the wonders of modern industry and at the same time became objects of attention for and surveillance of one another. Contemporary descriptions emphasized the Palace’s ethereality: the structure seemed fragile and bubble-like.  As Isobel Armstrong points out, both the Times and the Illustrated London News sent reporters to the top to view the Palace’s “sea of glass” from above (143).  But the glass could also be oppressive: the transparent roof let in so much light and heat, for instance, that the Queen in her diary accounts of her visits–she seemed to attend almost every day–mentioned her need for a parasol indoors.

The exhibition was designed along a central axis, edged by side courts and galleries. Its organizing principle was the idea of the nation, with about half the exhibits from England, the other half from the rest of the contributors, including England’s colonies and dominions–the implication being not only that England was, effectively, half the world but also that the rest of the world existed chiefly to supply England with raw materials.  The rhetoric of British “possessions” had the effect of teaching the English public what “belonged” to them (Auerbach 101). In retrospect many have argued that the exhibition imagined more productivity than it in fact celebrated: that its celebration was more of a projection of what could be than a monument to what was. Many of the objects on display would have been beyond the reach of working-class visitors; the exhibition was largely geared toward the construction and cultivation of middle-class tastes and desires. Exhibits included everyday goods for the middle classes: cutlery, furniture, clothing; there was also a predominance of what Thomas Richards calls “gadgets,” useless objects, supporting the general claim that other kinds of value, such as exchange value or aesthetic value, supplanted use value in the exhibition’s design. “Many things were exhibited . . . simply to demonstrate that something could be made” (Auerbach 109); the exhibition was “a celebration of British ingenuity” (110). Examples of what Jeffrey Auerbach calls “absurdities” included a “Man of Steel,” an expanding mannequin of 7,000 pieces; an artificial silver nose; a vase made of mutton fat and lard; and a “silent alarum bedstead,” which instead of making a noise “tipped the sleeper into a cold-water bath” (111). There were multi-purpose objects (the sofabed), all kinds of furniture, and examples of working-class housing. An enormous catalogue divided items into such categories as “raw materials,” “machinery,” and “fine arts,” while these sections themselves contained sub-listings of other categories further categorizing each group. Machines were the stars of the show: the rhetoric surrounding the exhibition lauded machinery’s promise for the future, its saving of labor, the wonders of its achievements. One of the more interesting and popular classifications, unintentionally mirroring visitors’ movement through the Exhibition itself, distinguished between motion and immobility: there were examples of machinery “in motion,” such as cotton-spinning machines, locomotives, and an “envelope machine” powered by steam pipes beneath the floorboards.

The objects on display were not for sale in the structure itself.  But the event has long been regarded as a defining moment in the history of consumerism, epitomizing the conceptualization of consumer goods as display and structuring consumers as desiring spectators. Richards argues that the Great Exhibition “systematized the representation of commodities” (39), and many agree that it did so through its emphasis on spectacle: the Exhibition was an aesthetic representation and public display of goods offered to potential consumers as visual objects and in the context of a visual experience.  With objects displaced from their original context to the exhibition space—far apart from their sites of production, origin, or use—their meaning was transformed so that exchange value and aesthetic value predominated over any notion of use.  The Exhibition engaged and shaped what has become a familiar experience for modern spectator-consumers: it moved the crowd indoors, the glass enclosure structuring movement and attention.

More than 25,000 attended on the first day; over six million came overall, many (including the Queen) more than once. The entrance fee, at first a prohibitive five shillings or above, was later lowered to one shilling so that the populace in general could attend. The Times feared the effect of the masses on visibility, and others expected the wealthy to stay away once the price was lowered, but in fact the Exhibition had always been envisioned as an opportunity to educate the working classes as well as to showcase the contributions of industrial workers. Some Londoners were concerned about working-class agitation—the Chartist demonstrations were still fresh in public memory (see Vanden Bossche, “On Chartism”)—but the crowds were in fact deferential and well-behaved, perhaps in response to the generalized emphasis on visibility mentioned above, perhaps as an effect of the sense of bewilderment elicited by the massive display of the Palace itself and the wonders it held.

As numerous observers documented, the Exhibition was lavish, over-stimulating, and bewildering; even the Catalogue eschewed an exact record, describing the number of exhibits as “over 100,000″ (qtd. in Briggs, 57). Many contemporary descriptions begin either with a statement about language’s inability to convey an adequate account of it or with some indication that the exhibition itself was unintelligible. Armstrong writes of the Crystal Palace’s seeming annihilation of space and time: the way the structure seemed to collapse territorial boundaries and erase history. “Rather than homogenizing objects or cultures,” she writes, “this produced the shock of infinite particularity, a sublime of heterogeneity” (147); “[it]t was experienced as an alternative world, a transformative space” (152). As Tatiana Holway has written, if it was comprehensive, the display was nevertheless incomprehensible, and a variety of narratives, schemes, and classifications emerged at the time and afterwards that attempted, but generally failed, to make sense of it (the “Official Catalogue” was generally found to be as bewildering as the exhibition itself). With its central corridor hemmed by side courts and galleries, and the impression conveyed of an all-inclusive show of all kinds of things from all corners of the world classified only by an enormous and multifarious catalogue, the Exhibition holds a position alongside other Victorian attempts at collection and classification. Projects such as the 1851 Census and Henry Mayhew’s four-volume London Labour and the London Poor sought to do for people what the Great Exhibition did for things, and all of these efforts suggest the unmanageability of the information they attempt to manage, as they seek to account for, organize, and classify vast numbers of people and things through the devising of categories whose number and arbitrariness merely reproduced the effect of bewilderment they are intended to address.

The discussion above is especially influenced by Foucault, Richards, and Armstrong.  But  I want to point as well toward possible interpretations suggested by Henri Lefebvre’s work on abstract space and Jonathan Crary’s work on attention. Lefebvre defines abstract space as rationalized and reorganized by the modern emphasis on production and consumption and on visual display; he stresses the division of experience into spaces suited for different activities, such as family, work, and leisure—space organized with reference to the function of gender in capitalist society. Abstract space is organized, he writes, “as a set of things and their formal relationships: glass and stone, concrete and steel, angles and curves, full and empty” (49). Abstract space is organizational and regulatory: it tells inhabitants what to do and what not to do. “It has nothing of a ‘subject’ about it,” he writes, “yet it acts like a subject in that it transports and maintains specific social relations, dissolves others and stands opposed to yet others. . . . The ‘real’ subject of abstract space is ‘state (political) power’” (50-1); it organizes and manipulates; it presents itself as authoritative (the “Palace”). Understood in this way, with Bentham’s Panopticon and Foucault’s analysis of it in mind, the transparency of the Crystal Palace becomes crucial: it brings individuals together on a mass scale, making them visible to one another as entranced and absorbed spectators of commodities and the wondrous machines that produce them. Perhaps less obviously, the building’s transparency functions as a metaphor for the apparent transparency of capitalism itself, “which contrives to be blatant and covert at one and the same time” (Lefebvre 50) and announces, by way of the Palace’s walls, that it has nothing to hide and everything to be proud of.

The Great Exhibition was an event in the history of large-scale, institutional manipulations of attention—a history that, following Crary, becomes crucial in the nineteenth century as “the conditions of human perception [were] reassembled into new components” and the “anchored classical observer” was replaced by the “unstable attentive subject” (148). The exhibition transformed its visitors into window shoppers oriented toward consumption even when there was nothing immediately on sale: visitors were spectators of consumable goods, the machines involved in their production and distribution, and, of course, one another. Something like a museum of potential possessions and consumables, the exhibition mobilized vast numbers of visitors to move in an organized manner through its space, keeping them enthralled and entertained, “teaching” the value of industry and productivity alongside the importance of various materials and the machines that produce them. It stressed the importance of nation and national identity in the context of such ingenuity and productivity, including the ingenuity that produced the structure in which it was all housed: a structure that seemed to contain “everything” even as it acknowledged the impossibility of doing so—in part by way of the transparency that, like a shop window, seemed to open the exhibition onto the world, inviting visitors in even as it structured their movements and reinforced invisible boundaries between them (such as who could and could not afford to purchase, or otherwise make use of, some of the items displayed).  One of the exhibition’s most interesting effects involves what Crary has identified as a continuum of attention and distraction: the way in which people in the nineteenth century began to perceive attention as “a dynamic process, intensifying and diminishing, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing according to an indeterminate set of variables” (47). The exhibition space moved spectators from object to object, never allowing their gazes to rest or remain uninterrupted for a period of significant duration; it articulated the visitor’s movement as a series of pauses before spectacular objects and displays. Walking/moving through the exhibition was thus an experience of successive attachments or investments. No single object or event did or was meant to remain the focus of attention; rather, what was important was the experience of moving from one to another and the impression of multitudinousness created by the sheer vastness and multiplicity of the whole, the evidence of the exhibition’s “greatness” lying in its capacity to distract, in the impossibility of any comprehension of the whole. Moving through its space, subjects of and subject to that bewilderment, visitors to the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace were also themselves the show, evidence of the extraordinary mobilizing power of visual display and promised consumption.

The following link ( gives you a look at a miniaturized “show” offered to visitors as a souvenir: “Lane’s Telescopic View,” a “peepshow” construction with a pop-up window, provides a 3-dimensional representation of Queen Victoria at the exhibition’s opening ceremony.

Audrey Jaffe is Professor of English at the University of Toronto.  She is the author of Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience (1991); Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction (2000), and The Affective Life of the Average Man: The Victorian Novel and the Stock-Market Graph (2010).


published March 2012

Jaffe, Audrey. “On the Great Exhibition.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Briggs, Asa.  Victorian Cities.  Berkeley: U of California, 1993.

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Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space.  London: Blackwell, 1991.  Print.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

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