Peter H. Hoffenberg, “1871-1874: The South Kensington International Exhibitions”


The series of annual international exhibitions held during the early 1870s at South Kensington, London, were not particularly successful, or popular, but they were influential in the history of exhibitions. The alleged failures and the cancellation of the final annual exhibition halfway through the intended decade-long series of events provoked considerable discussion about the purpose, scale and expectations for exhibitions, which were no longer novel or limited to a particular city or nation-state. There were some successes, notably for the Australian colonies and British India, and for very specific trades and exhibitors, but the public discussion and those limited successes have generally failed to capture the attention of scholars. These events are rarely mentioned in books and articles about exhibitions and, when discussed, are considered to be failures without merit. This BRANCH contribution recognizes that other exhibitions were more popular and more successful, but also recognizes that the South Kensington shows were significant in addressing criticisms of exhibitions in general and in the generational history of both the shows and their organizers. The 1870s proved to be a pivotal period in the history of such exhibitions and the consideration of what merited public culture. The mantle was passed from Sir Henry Cole to his successors and the ambition of holding annual international exhibitions was replaced by more thematic shows in Britain and bold international shows in the Australian colonies. Amidst the general impressions of failure, there were also successes at the shows and those highlighted how inter-national exhibitions could prove useful in a changing world.


International exhibitions were hardly new or rare as the decade of the 1870s began. In Britain alone, major exhibitions had been held in London, Manchester, and Dublin, among other cities, and the mania spread across the seas to map iconFrance, the United States and British colonies in South Asia and Australasia. In one way or another, those popular events combined the appeals of fairs, museums, art galleries and stores. One might even add public gardens to that list. Millions of visitors enjoyed, observed and consumed a galaxy of commercial goods, works of art, scientific samples and machines, not without opposition and dissent, but also not without a general consensus that the temporary international exhibition was worth its many costs and challenges. That consensus no longer held as Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) initiated and subsequently prematurely terminated his scheme of ten annual international exhibitions at South Kensington, London. By the end of 1874, the Executive Commissioner had abandoned his bold plans in the face of declining and eventually untenable attendance, reluctance on the part of significant exhibitors to participate, or to return the following year to participate again, and the relatively little positive attention paid to the shows in the press. There was, though, a loud and constant chorus of private and public criticism about what Cole himself termed, “imperfect experiments” (“A Special Report” xxxvii).

This essay will consider what changes in exhibitions Cole proposed and why he did so—his “experiments”—, what he and his colleagues solicited and the response to some of those exhibits, and the discussion of why his scheme failed. There is relatively little scholarship on these Annual International Exhibitions, in part because they were perceived at the time as failures. The contemporary discussion about the events and the explanations for their failure can, though, deepen our understanding of the history of exhibitions, which included significant dissent and changes, and of how exhibitions did and did not correspond to wider issues of public society and culture. Much was at stake with Cole’s innovative scheme and with the reasons given for its failure. Those two topics remained of interest in the press and among exhibition participants well into the 1880s and, by association, beyond England’s shores. The seeming failures remained of interest as organizers, exhibitors and observers continued to reflect on what type of exhibition could be most successful in a changing world.

Reflection on the South Kensington shows was a reflection on Victorian society and public life, as key contemporaries understood at the time. Those included Cole, for whom the shows were a personal and professional failure, and exhibition advocates, who pondered how to match exhibitions and the public in a more mutually beneficial way. John Forbes Watson (1827-1892) and Trueman Wood (1845-1929) were among such vocal recognized figures. They were both fully engaged with exhibitions from their respective positions at the India Office and Museum, and the Royal Society of Arts. More often than not that engagement was in the form of organizing displays and membership on official committees and commissions.[1] Other participants at the time, and within a decade or so after the international exhibitions, included members of London’s trades and business communities, exhibitors and officials at colonial shows, and noteworthy British commentators on museums and other cultural institutions.

Failure at South Kensington by the end of 1874 did not mean an end to exhibitions, although Wood, among others, looking back ten years later thought that it could have. He wrote: “The failure of this scheme was thought to have put a stop to exhibitions in this country, at all events for a long time” (637). Rather, conversations were about how exhibitions had to change because the wider world was changing. Reflections on what the public wanted and how exhibitions could both respond to and shape those desires bore fruit with popular shows in the 1880s and 1890s. Those successes at map iconSouth Kensington and other exhibition venues were influenced by the public discussion of Cole’s failure.

South Kensington shows in the 1870s were fundamentally different than other exhibitions as a consequence of Cole’s professional goals and in recognition that the shock of the novel and the seduction of the global had worn off. Or, perhaps as one popular guidebook suggested, the international shows’ “very success had led to their abandonment,” as they could not keep pace as they advertised that they would with “the growth of art, science, and industry” (Yapp 1). A second guidebook suggested at the time that such exhibitions also tended to create “a very considerable disturbance of trade,” contrary to the promise of increased trade (Nelson’s 5). Those were not unusual or peripheral concerns. Nor was the growing sense that the vast array of exhibits was so overwhelming that it was impossible to have meaningful study and learning. After touring the grounds at the map iconParis Universal Exposition in 1855, one English visitor remarked:

The visitor is wearied with the extent and variety of things exhibited: with the endless lumps of coal, the colossal cakes of soap, the thousands of labelled bottles filled with grain, the endless array of various ores, the blue and red agricultural implements, the colossal engines, web-like spinning machinery, and the curious models (“The Paris Universal Exhibition” 527)

Might it all be too much, or at the very least, too much for only one or two visits? Machines-in-motion remained attractive, but our visitor even found it “difficult to disentangle the wheels and cranks of one machine from those of its neighbours.”

Those were serious questions about the value and purposes of large-scale international exhibitions and the nature of the Victorian public. Had a limit been reached in this world of seemingly limitless consumption, observation, education and pleasure? If such issues and their consequences had not been fully understood by Cole and his associates as they began their annual scheme, they certainly were by the time their shows prematurely ended four years later. Those questions about the relevance and nature of exhibitions would not be decisively answered by the middle of the decade. They would also be repeated in the 1880s, as exhibitors, visitors and organizers wrestled with the apparent fact that the  novelty of exhibitions had worn off, seemingly along with their utility and uniqueness.

That awareness of such challenges did not mean for Cole in the early 1870s an abandonment of international exhibitions, but rather putting in place “a system differing largely from that of its predecessors” (Nelson’s 5). That change revealed that Cole was quite conscious about the scale, organization and purposes of such shows. He might have misjudged the solutions to restore exhibitions to their previous heights of popularity and significance, but that did not mean he denied that there were problems. The cancellation of his scheme confirmed a misreading, but did not confirm that there were no major problems with international exhibitions of which Cole was not aware. Put bluntly: what were recurring exhibitions good for in the post-1851 world of mass entertainment, relatively easy travel by steam and train, and department stores offering the world to consumers?

That was a question asked at the time in Britain, map iconAustralia and British map iconIndia, as exhibitions appeared to be declining in popularity and influence. Sydney’s leading journalist derided one of his city’s major exhibitions as “a decided failure” and concluded that “the general want of interest therein by the public, clearly prove that this has been overdone” (Twopeny 186-96). Exhibition organizers in Calcutta and Bombay faced similar and considerable criticism from a variety of groups and individuals. Thus, Cole’s nearly contemporaneous failures and the discussions about them occurred at a pivotal moment in the histories of conceptualizing the public and holding world’s fairs; the two were linked in what we have come to call, “the British World,” as the events were intended to be educational, profitable, entertaining and both a reflection of and agent for public life, or a sense of society. Such concerns did not seem to affect French international exhibitions, as one was held every ten years or so between the 1855 and the end of the century. Each successive one bore a striking similarity to its popular predecessor.

Sir Henry Cole and His Exhibition Scheme

The Executive Commissioner and leading figure at the South Kensington complex had been an active exhibition enthusiast and organizer since the planning stages of the map iconGreat Exhibition. Along with Prince Albert, Cole was probably the public figure most readily associated with English exhibitions and official English participation at overseas exhibitions, including the major Paris Universal Expositions. He certainly assumed that public role after the Prince’s death in 1861. Cole’s association with exhibitions, artisan education and the South Kensington complex made him the recognized subject of serious commentaries and portraits, as well as more satirical ones. Cole was Vanity Fair’s “Men of the Day, no 29” in August 1871, amidst the first South Kensington International Exhibition. (See Fig. 1.) His dog stands on his hind legs rather obediently and subordinately. One assumes that was a reference to Cole’s employees, or a snarky reference to Cole’s alleged fawning at the feet of high-government and royal officials, a deference often linked to the Royal Society of Arts. Perhaps it held both meanings for readers? It might be added, that although Cole was rather outspoken, if not arrogant, he was hardly parochial, or jingoistic. His inclusion of overseas and non-Western art works were appreciated as potentially improving British wares and revealed a rather cosmopolitan view of art and industry.

charicatured image of Henry Cole (lithograph)

Figure 1: Sir Henry Cole (“Men of the Day, No. 29”), Chromolithograph by James Jacques Tissot, published in Vanity Fair 19 August 1871.

Was Cole strong-willed, even in his open-mindedness about what constituted art worth learning from? Yes. Difficult to work with? Yes. But not above learning from what he perceived were previous errors and from what others were doing. He was sincerely and keenly interested in the Paris shows of 1855 and 1867, and what might be borrowed or adapted from those French examples to improve English shows and the display of English material culture abroad. Cole most certainly held and expressed strong opinions about the utility of exhibitions and their larger cultural and moral roles. He famously contrasted exhibitions with “gin-palaces.” Exhibitions were for education first, and only for entertainment if that were subordinate to learning. They were a part of the wider Victorian ‘civilizing’ process of socialization and education. And those who could learn the most were artisans and workers, men who produced material culture in England and could improve their work by observing goods from throughout England and much of the recognized world. Models for improvement could, if not should, come from France and map iconSpain, and also from map iconChina and India.

None of that is intended to present a character free of controversy. In the case of Paris in 1867, Cole and his deputies were publicly criticized for many policies and actions, such as their decoration of the British galleries. That decoration “would do no credit to our common house-painter,” according to the correspondent for the Illustrated London News (“The Paris Universal Exhibition,” 247). That journalist was not finished and chastised Cole for the “cold, dull, cheerless air” of the British picture galleries, considered one of the more important British displays (257). It might be noted, though, that the weekly newspaper also praised Cole and included a portrait of the soon-to-be-former Director of the South Kensington Museum as he expressed his intention to retire in 1873 (July 12, 1873, 36 and 38).

Those criticisms and praises never seemed to deter the determined Cole. He was among those Victorians who was convinced that he knew what was right and that intransigence only grew with criticism and praise. He did, though, seek to revise exhibitions in significant ways and, in doing so, change what was exhibited and the shows’ major objectives. Such changes were also an admission that what Cole had overseen in the 1850s and 1860s had to be changed. The reforms were motivated by criticism, but perhaps even more so by his particular views about the nature and purposes of exhibitions. Cole intended to limit the displays to a few different “selected” types, or “some few classes of manufactures” each year, promote those that were innovative, or could be labeled “discoveries” and “inventions,” and emphasize the utility and quality of such objects, rather than their capacity to entertain. The shows would be “very select and limited in size” and not display those “objects obtainable in ordinary commerce and those which have been already exhibited” (“Memorandum Upon a Scheme of Annual International Exhibitions” 269).

The upcoming shows would be international in scope, but not universal, in contrast to the goals of previous London and ongoing Paris exhibitions. Cole’s proposed shows also contrasted with contemporary ones, including the Vienna International in 1873. All countries and the British colonies could exhibit at South Kensington, but they could only exhibit what was called for each particular year, unless they could find a creative way to bypass the limits and exhibit what was not explicitly solicited. Some of the Australian colonies were able to do so by sending photographs of items not requested by Cole and by challenging the specific definition of ‘innovative.’ What was new in Brisbane, map iconQueensland, for example, might not be new in London, and the colonial participants challenged who had the final determination of whether that item was truly innovative or not, and thus could be exhibited, or not (“Papers Connected with the Representation of Queensland” 3-5).

The story of those machinations and the exhibitions themselves begins with Cole’s scheme of exclusive annual exhibitions, rather than a single inclusive show every ten years or so, as had been the case in London and Paris. In fact, South Kensington had opened its doors in 1862 with the understanding of that second and expected schedule. One could see at least some of the major seeds for the alternative scheme being sown during the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, the second French show attempting to exhibit the entire known world in all of its many material forms. Later critics, Watson among them, would also point to the connections between Paris and the subsequent South Kensington shows (30 Dec 10). Cole was in charge of Britain’s displays in the French capital and, as noted above, that work did not meet with universal commendation. His labors also provided a test case for how to organize, name and engage ‘the world,’ a case which provoked Cole as early as 1868 to consider the scheme of annual exhibitions at a meeting of Her Majesty’s Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851. Reviews of the recent Paris show helped justify those changes.  (A Special Report on The Annual International Exhibitions v-viii). At that point, Cole was proposing a series of five Annual Exhibitions, not the eventually bolder series of ten.

One additional consequence of England’s officially-sanctioned participation at the Paris Universal Exposition was the convening of a Parliamentary Select Committee to evaluate that experience and to ponder ways to acquire exhibits and other materials necessary to host subsequent exhibitions at the relatively new South Kensington complex. By this time, Paxton’s controversial Crystal Palace had moved to map iconSydenham and was home to a permanent collection, more like an amusement park and museum for its time than an international exhibition. A reproduction of the Pompeian Court, walkable gardens and dinosaur models–and not the most recent agricultural machines, consumer goods and paintings—attracted thousands of visitors.[2] South Kensington seemed to have been built in contrast for permanent art collections, the serious study thereof and periodic major decennial exhibitions of art and industry.

Cole’s decision to limit the type of exhibits for each year was an intentional contrast with the seemingly limitless cosmos of exhibits at Paris in 1867. The French show was intended to “hold up for a little while a mirror to mankind,” or the world; those in South Kensington were not intended to do so (“The Paris Exhibition,” 350). There was no appeal to excitement, or even what the public necessarily thought that it wanted. He knew himself what the public really wanted and needed, even if it did not express itself that way. Novelty was a key factor, preferably teamed with quality and utility. Newness in and of itself was sometimes sufficient to convince Cole that the object should be exhibited. Cole referred during his Parliamentary testimony to his experiences in Paris to advocate for “the purchase of a number of valuable works of art and of technical scientific interest” for display at South Kensington. Those would be exhibited in an effort to develop “the manufacturing interest of the country [Britain], and to the artistic and scientific instructions of the schools.” He knew what was needed! As we will see below, this perceived arrogance and its resulting commitment to the limited annual categories were considered by contemporaries among the causes of the shows’ failures.

As the editors of the Official Guide noted by their 1874 edition, Cole’s plans were well known by that time: visitors could expect art, decorations, furniture and “new discoveries and inventions (foreign as well as British)” this year as they had in the past few years, as well as “three or more special manufactures” not included in the previous shows. Those new exhibits included “the materials and machinery employed in each, as well as the manufactured goods” (1). One year, exhibitors were invited to display only pottery, woolens, and “educational works and appliances” (Cole, “Memorandum” 271). The next year, Cole and his commission solicited cotton, jewelry and musical instruments. This plan made the shows “international,” but not “universal” in the words of one catalogue editor, whose “Popular Guide”  proceeded to list and describe many of the “upward of 8,000” exhibits at the 1871 show (Yapp 1). He included countries of origin and, if available, prices. Perhaps there was not everything under the sun at South Kensington, but there were numerous and varied examples of “novelty, invention, or special excellence” from around much of the globe (Cole, A Special Report vi).

Readers of the English press and visitors themselves could note, for example, toys, a llama, working machines and French art, among much more (“Sketches in the International Exhibition” 224-225). Some might take note of tobacco-pipes and drinking vessels from different periods and different countries, some ancient and some contemporary (Illustrated London News, 28 June 1873 602 and 20 September 1873, 280). Those were among the international displays in terms of time and space, but not universal as in exhibiting everything across time and space. In place of prizes, either monetary or not, Cole proposed expert’s reports and the eventual display of prize-winning exhibits at South Kensington, art schools and regional institutions.

Creative exhibitors, including those from the Australian colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, circumvented the annual restrictions by including photographs of and essays about objects not specifically solicited for display during a particular show, and thus advertising more goods than officially expected and those that might capture the public’s intended eyes. The Colonial Architect in Sydney contributed a series of water colors and photographs illustrating public structures and manufacturing enterprises well beyond Cole and his commissioners’ list of solicited categories. (Catalogue of the Exhibits in the New South Wales Annexe). As noted above, some colonial commissioners also appealed to a looser definition of what was “new and innovative,” arguing that the definition should be based on what was new for Australians even if not so new for overseas exhibition visitors and judges. In the face of “the very confined scope as well as the short notice” to display, Queensland’s commissioners were particularly aggressive about what might be exhibited as “novel.” Before the Exhibition officially opened, they wrote to Cole and other English organizers:

It is fair, however, to presume that Her Majesty’s Commissioners, foreseeing that the more youthful and distant of the British possessions would be at a manifest disadvantage, intended some relaxation of the regulations to meet their case, and to allow for raw materials the qualification of ‘novelty,’ which, though not new in itself, should possess the recommendation of coming from a part of the world new to commerce as producing such material. (“Papers Connected with the Representation” 3-5)

Whereas such sentiment was driven in part by distance in its many forms and both political and social youth, one could not help but recognize that it was also driven by the consensus that as with earlier Exhibitions, “the resources of a new country are chiefly in the form of raw materials” (Catalogue of the Natural and Industrial Products of New South Wales 8). That was true in 1871 as it had been true the previous decade at the time of the colonies’ participation at the London Inter-national Exhibition, also held at South Kensington (Catalogue of Exhibits in the New South Wales Annexe). Those were the “elementary products, which Providence had placed within our reach” boasted the representatives of map iconNew South Wales (Ibid).

Images of Australian gold, flora and fauna, and Aboriginals were of particular interest to men, women and children walking around South Kensington. Those colonial displays also included photographs of manufacturing enterprises and of material exhibits that were too fragile, expensive, or large to ship to London for the shows. New South Wales and Queensland were again among the Australian colonies that most successfully stretched the Commissioners’ rules and limitations (Quarter-maine 40-55 and Bolton 20-27).[3] Richard Daintree, Queensland’s official Agent-General in London and Colonial Geologist, created an impressive collection of solicited and non-solicited items, and one that was proposed as a more permanent annex and then colonial museum at South Kensington (“Mr. Richard Daintree” 19 and “Queensland’s Annexe” 8). Many colored photographs accompanied the relatively new colony’s scientific, artistic and commercial samples, illustrating its tropical natural history, unusual geography and perhaps limitless mineral wealth. (See Fig. 2.)

Sketch of the Queensland’s Annexe at the London International Exhibition

Figure 2: Queensland’s Annexe at the London International Exhibition, 1871-74, Australasian Sketcher 15 April 1873, 8.

In the end, the annual scheme of selected exhibits was a gamble on Cole’s part, or, in his own terms, an “experiment.” Most, including Cole himself, would say he lost that bet and the experiments failed, but that is not to say that his policies and the resulting limited displays were not without praise and influence. That was more so the case in 1871, when the series of shows was a novelty. One London paper noted at the time that there was less space for manufactures, but more for the Fine Arts than at previous English exhibitions. The “principle of selection” was praised as not only a way to elevate “merit” and thereby ensure education and avoid favoritism, but also as a strategy to avoid “the confused mass of former International Exhibitions” (“Fine Arts in the International Exhibition” 450). There was high praise and equally high hopes that the “many complaints” raised by manufacturers and the “wearisome” days experienced by visitors could be avoided. Those would be replaced by “fairness and liberality consistent with the convenience and instruction of the public.”

Some of the selective courts were popular, including the one limited to European paintings, and it seems that the popularity was driven by the narrow focus of the courts in addition to the quality and newness of the exhibits. The Times reported that “the picture galleries were densely crowded all day” during the first official day of the 1874 International Exhibition even though most of the intended British and French masterpieces had yet to be hanged in the first floor’s Fine Arts Galleries  (“International Exhibition,” 7 Apr.).  Before their arrival, Belgian paintings, Italian sculptures and map iconBrussels lace proved notably popular with visitors.  The fine arts proved a magnet for such visitors, and the physical separation of art from other exhibits was repeated with success at future shows, both at home and abroad.

Other exclusionary choices led to sales and public expressions of approval by experts and authorities in their respective fields. That was the case with “The Indian Court” and its textiles, carpets, metalwork, ivory, jewelry and glasswork. Many of those and other South Asian objects were purchased by Cole and his staff for the permanent collections and display at the annual International Exhibitions. Initially on display within the main entrance of the Horticultural Gardens and the adjoining French gallery, the works were eventually exhibited in their own “special Court” (Yapp 39-40). John Forbes Watson was active there as one of the “Reporters” for India. His categories included “Fine Arts, etc” (Yapp xii).

The exhibits from India caught the attention of the press and the influential Art Journal during the second year. The latter’s contributor praised the “Oriental workers” whose labors were on display and who thought that the exhibits provided what Cole intended: “powerful aids” and “admirable models” for British craftsmen. The variety of textiles, ivory and wood works, and other art-wares were applauded for their beauty, ability to provide pleasure and utility, with potential contributions to British aesthetics and craftsmanship accompanied by larger potential reforms. The conclusion? “There have been no productions from any part of the world so fertile of instruction” (“International Exhibition Supplement” 3, 28-30, 59-60).[4]

The Times echoed such praise as the series of exhibitions ended, noting in particular the quality of the carpets and metalwork, but in the same column bemoaning some other exhibits “which are deplorable examples of the destructive effects of European notions upon Indian work” (”Indian Court” 6). The message was not as explicitly pro-Empire as perhaps some had envisioned the exhibits. Additionally, a contemporary thought that the displays were so impressive that they might provide the reason for Englishmen and women to stop calling South Asians “n-ggers” (“The Indian Court,” 1871, 288). Those two results do not appear among Cole’s stated intentions, but they suggest perhaps that art reform could provoke the reform, or “improvement” of common ideas, social relations and public policies.

Public expressions of praise for exhibits were not restricted to the European painting and South Asian art–ware displays. Italian porcelains were noted for their elegancy and ingenuity, although the pieces on display were not up to the quality of previous Italian art. The on-site correspondent for the Illustrated London News added that future shows might exhibit Italian work of regained quality (“The International Exhibition,” 1871, 120-121 and 145-146). Others at the time also noted the porcelains and potteries. Arthur Beckwith, an American civil engineer, published a catalogue and report on the “pottery” exhibits at the 1871 International Exhibition. One year after the show, Beckwith praised the “varied and comprehen-sive” displays not only for their own intrinsic quality, but also for what they seemed to promise “as only the first of the ten year programme” (100-101).

Whereas this “very complete collection of Pottery in all its branches” earned Beckwith’s applause because of its comprehensiveness, he was also careful to note the quality of the exhibits and “the machinery employed in its manufacture” (Beckwith 101). Invention, taste, mechanical excellence, and the superior technical qualities all captured the American’s attention and suggested that, at least in the case of the pottery exhibits, Cole’s objectives had been met. The collection was international, it included works of the highest quality and workmanship, and provided information about how the works were created and could be used. They were precisely the models intended to inform and reform public life. Cole’s mid-Victorian vision of labor, machinery, utility and beauty was realized in this “economy of space, time, and labor” on display at South Kensington’s international exhibition (63).

Beckwith’s praise was stronger than that of most other observers, but not unique at the time. His favorable impressions were echoed in the shorter narratives in popular handbooks, among which were Nelson’s Pictorial Guide-Book. Its editors concluded: “Pottery … is one of the two special manufactures presented this year; and the collection that has been brought together is everything that could be desired on the score of completeness and variety.” As if that were not enough praise, those editors continued to gush: “… it is by far the most comprehensive of any that has yet been made, including as it does, specimens of every conceivable species of ware, from the exquisitely ornamented vase to the familiarly common brick” (18). Written praise was accompanied by an illustration of the “Pottery Room,” noting well-dressed men, women and children clustered around open works and those in glass cases. One visitor at the fore-front holds what is presumably a guidebook or catalogue (Nelson’s n.pag.)

Looking back after the annual shows, a visitor might very well claim that she had experienced the world in total, just not at one particular show. There was a type of universality built into Cole’s vision. It was one that required patience and comparison, more patience and comparison than strolling through the halls in only two, or three days, or being entertained by the dinosaur models at Sydenham. One might call it “a close,” or “deep reading,” rather than a superficial one. South Kensington officials responded to what one contemporary termed the over-whelming “gigantic proportions” of the universal exhibitions by reducing the annual display of those “proportions” (Yapp 1). Art, science and industry were growing too quickly for everything to be displayed in one place at one time.

Rather, Cole’s scheme offered a dissected vision of that growth over an extended time period. This was a compelling argument for specialization, for inducing visitors to focus on particular products and compare the examples thereof, rather than being overwhelmed by thousands of different exhibits, a mass that often challenged the visitors’ capacities to judge, or even remember what they were supposed to judge. The individual value of each exhibit could easily by diluted if not annihilated by the intoxication of variety and number, although such balkanization prevented visitors from systematically connecting the various parts of the material and aesthetic worlds. Universal expositions, such as the Great Exhibition and the continuing Paris shows, invited those connections and networks.

What began with a bang at South Kensington ended with a whimper. H.R.H. the Prince of Wales and other officials celebrated the shows’ opening in 1871 with a “State Ceremony” during a day of “bright and fine” weather (Fig. 3). Official presentations and declarations were made, a Psalm was read, and the day included a vocal and instrumental concert of Arthur Sullivan’s new cantata. The customary royal tour proceeded as scheduled (“Opening of the International Exhibition, South Kensington.”) Four years later, the final exhibition opened (and subsequently closed) without much notice (Cole, Special Report xviii). The Times reported that “[a]t 10’oclock … the doors of the International Exhibition of 1874 were opened without the slightest fuss, or ceremony.” Familiar ticket-takers and wardens greeted visitors, but the paper’s contributor noted that only “a third of the usual sum had been expended this year upon advertising” and “there was no special attraction held forth to the public.” The paper was optimistic that the first day’s attendance and the various attractions listed in the two columns would make the year successful (“International Exhibition” 7 Apr.). It was not.

Opening of the International Exhibition

Figure 3: Opening of the International Exhibition, South Kensington

Attendance dropped from a height of 1,142,000 in 1871 to only 467,000 by the close of the final show in 1874. Almost 15,000 of the latter showed up on Opening Day. Putting those numbers in perspective, the previous Paris Universal had been visited by 9 million men, women, and children. The two London-based International Exhibitions had welcomed about six million each in 1851 and 1862 (Findling and Pelle 413-417). Desperate for comparable or at least acceptable numbers of visitors, the official Commission at South Kensington reduced the entrance fees for artisans. That measure did not stop the descent into the proverbial “black hole” of neglect, deficit, and eventually disappearance.

The above is not to say that the International Exhibitions did not open with confidence and some optimism, although also with some bad luck, or that the halls were empty.  It is also not to say that what was perceived by most as a failure revealed as much about the critics as it did about at least some of the raw material evidence. There were popular exhibits and displays that netted sales and positive reviews. The opening ceremony was well attended and praised, and the turnstiles turned. But the attendance numbers and the resistance of potential exhibitors did not tell a false tale. As John Forbes Watson noted at the time in a rather long letter to The Times: “… everybody will concur in the wisdom of putting an end to the present series of Exhibitions.” The official announcement in 1874 “has for the moment terminated the slow crisis through which the annual International Exhibitions at South Kensington have been passing” (9 June 1874 6).

How to explain that “slow crisis”? The commissioners’ timing for the shows had not been good, although such errors were not always their fault. Cole and his associates should have known that the map iconVienna International Exhibition scheduled for 1873 would be competition for South Kensington’s exhibitors and visitors. The official British commission had started meeting as early as October 1872 to organize and fund exhibits. It was the case that some potential exhibitors to both had to choose which one of the shows that year would deplete their limited resources, or they might divide their displays, leaving both shows with incomplete exhibits. That was the case with Watson’s Indian displays, as map iconBombay’s “valuable collection relating to the production and manufacture of cotton” was packed up and shipped across map iconthe Channel to the busy Austrian capital (“The Vienna Exhibition” 86). With perhaps some irony, the India Office Reporter later praised exhibits at the Vienna show, after criticizing Cole’s exhibitions (On the Measures Required 10).

On the other hand, it would have been surprising for the organizers in London to have foreseen the deadly Franco-Prussian War unfold as the gates of their show were originally intended to open in 1870, thereby creating not only a war cloud over what was supposed to be a celebration of peace and progress, but also making the participation of two key nation-states rather problematic. It was not expected that France and Prussia would find much time or resources for the International Exhibition as their soldiers were killing each other rather efficiently with the most advanced weaponry. The decision to continue the shows after 1870 in the face of that significant European war was not without controversy and expectations. One contributor to the London press was optimistic that the French would exhibit and “produce the best and prettiest things” once again after peace had been secured (Illustrated London News 2 September 1871, 199).

There were noteworthy design, quality and organizational issues.  Cole himself admitted that there were serious “inconveniences,” including poor access to the galleries from railway stations and a “defective” refreshment room. “The public suffered [those and other] inconveniences accordingly, and became more and more alienated” (“A Special Report” xxxvii). As early as the second Exhibition in 1872 there were complaints about the “great falling off” in the contents and quality of key galleries and comments that works displayed at South Kensington had already been displayed at other public institutions. Those included “the map iconRoyal Academy and elsewhere” (Illustrated London News 17 August 1872, 166) In other words, quality and innovation were both suffering as stated objectives of Cole’s shows. French, Russian, Belgian and other foreign pictures included those that were mediocre or of “absolute badness” (“London International Exhibition. Foreign Pictures,” 70). By the final year, the Indian and French art collections included some works that were beautiful, but “not equal at all to former displays.” The decline in quality heralded the end of the shows (The Graphic, June 27, 1874, 619).

Exhibition visitors expected guidance and advice. There were often no labels or lists to consult, so visitors were left to themselves or the good fortune of an informed companion. Crowds delayed access to sought-after galleries, notably the British picture galleries. The stairway up to the second floor was packed with anxious and sometimes bored visitors (Illustrated London News, 16 September 1871, 264).  Appreciation of and inspiration from sculptures required good lighting. Alas, there was even poor lighting for the many sculptures. Such problems were expected at the birth of exhibitions in the 1850s, but were disappointing surprises to men and women visiting the grounds over twenty years later.

The distinction between international and universal did not seem to have been the issue for all critics as, at least in theory, the annual limit on exhibits provided focus and competition, much to the benefit of certain exhibitors whose works would be lost otherwise in the vast cosmos of universalism. One pictorial guidebook suggested that “the immense number of the articles accumulated” in previous universal exhibitions “prevented a close and critical examination of the collection either in its parts or as a whole” (Nelson’s 5). That vastness might have served some purposes, but not those of education and improvement, goals closest to Cole’s heart and soul. Limitless exhibits provoked awe, if not exhaustion, and not analysis and application. Limiting the exhibits might accomplish those objectives.

In the end, though, such goals were meaningful only if there were enough worthy exhibits in the displayed categories, those categories were of enough public interest and the building’s infrastructure encouraged access and understanding. Among others, Watson was not sure that Cole had selected exhibits in which the public was interested. In that case, the problem was not with the visitors and their expectations, but with the Executive Commissioner and his. That was only one among a constellation of issues, the consideration of which Watson wrote “may prove useful guides for future action” and return to what seemed like the happy union of the public and exhibitions in 1851 and 1862.

Contemporary Reflections and Criticisms: John Forbes Watson

Interest in society, or the public, and what might be termed, the public interest, was at the heart of Watson’s criticisms of the South Kensington annual exhibitions, among other shows. How could these shows be made popular, as they seemed to have been looking in the rearview mirror of history and memory? Watson understood that he was not alone in both despairing of the current conditions and aspiring for a return to exhibitions that were successful in all measures of that objective. By late 1872,  he contended “the enthusiastic expecta-tions of 1851 have given place to a growing feeling of indifference, mingled with impatience on the part of the bulk of thinking men” (28 Dec 10). Like Trueman Wood in 1886, the India Office official feared some would use the failures to terminate all exhibitions. But Watson was relieved that as important as  criticism was, “what is more important, it is being acted upon” in a way which sought to improve, but not eliminate, large-scale exhibitions. He intended to address “the very principle of the Exhibitions,” as the public questioned “their usefulness as public institutions” (28 Dec 10). What might have caused the public “revulsion” and how could that be turned to public engagement? How could Watson “act upon” the recent failures to better understand their causes and prevent their repetition?

Watson penned three extended letters in 1872 and 1874 to the London Times on the state of exhibitions, the public’s relationship to them, and how to improve both. What to do “about the revulsion which always follows exaggerated expectations?” (28 Dec 10) Those commentaries and recommendations were also made available in other published forms in the event that readers missed them in the newspaper or wanted to further reflect upon them (1873 and “Appendix C. – Letters on the Subject of International Exhibitions” 57-64).[5] Other sources picked up and mentioned the letters, suggesting a not insignificant public discussion. For example, The Architect (London) noted:

International Exhibitions.—Dr. Forbes Watson has published a letter In which he questions the wisdom of having every year an exhibition of new pictures and statues. This, he says, is pure art, and not applied art, and may be considered as sufficiently cared for independently of annual International Exhibitions. An international exhibition of the best works once in ten years would be sufficient. (Vol. 9, 4 January 1873, 12)

The core of Watson’s imploring was for English exhibition officials to better understand what the public was and what it wanted. Exhibitions were an important part of English society, but could only work if they were in sync with the public and if their organizers recognized that the public, or society, had changed and continued to change. Dynamic exhibitions were necessary for a dynamic modern society, and organizers were expected to know what would attract visitors and how often they would be attracted. Neither exhibitions nor society stood still. What could be done to ensure that exhibitions were profitable to exhibitors, instructive for the general public and useful to the nation, if not beyond the nation’s borders? Those effects were not to be ephemeral, or airy, but “traceable and tangible” (30 Dec 10). The three letters articulated a logical narrative of why the Great Exhibition had been so popular, why the current South Kensington ones were not, and how exhibitions could be saved and could function for the public good as complements, not competition for, technical and trade museums.

John Forbes Watson was a well-known exhibition commissioner and exhibitor at shows in England and abroad in his positions as Reporter on the Products of India for the India Office and Director of the India Museum in London. (See Fig. 4) He spoke with authority and experience as he entered the public conversation about the annual international exhibitions and exhibitions in general. Watson’s resume included organizing and sometimes personally overseeing Indian exhibits at the London International in 1862, the Vienna International eleven years later and a significant number of other exhibitions as distant from the India Museum as map iconNew Zealand. If Cole or other British executive commissioners needed Indian exhibits, it was to Watson that they commonly turned. Trained in medicine with a degree from map iconAberdeen and a stint as Army Surgeon in Bombay, he brought that background to his efforts to organize, explain, represent and often sell India’s commercial products. Those efforts included the official exhibition catalogues of the Indian Departments at many shows and reports on the scientific names and uses of what were commonly called at the time “economic plants.” Such plants included textiles, tobacco and cotton.[6]

Image of portrait of John Forbes Watson in a book

Figure 4: John Forbes Watson, from The Journal of Indian Art (and Industry), 3 no. 25 (1890), 8.

Watson’s critiques were available while the annual shows were up and running, if we can use that term, and offered systematic and extended discussion of what was wrong and what could be fixed with exhibitions, as did Cole’s own lengthy official report, published in 1875, a year after the final exhibition. Picking up and riding with what he noted was a wave of “negative criticism,” the India Office official discerned in that criticism “a significant change in the public feeling on this subject [international exhibitions, not only Cole’s shows]”(28 Dec 10). He tried to explain “why it is that the present London exhibitions had so signally failed to achieve what measure of practical success was realized by” previous exhibitions and how those causes might very well not be unique to the failed South Kensington events. Unlike in the cases of their predecessors, or Watson’s and others’ memory of those events, including, not surprisingly, the Great Exhibition, the later Victorian public did not attach “a transcendent importance to the idea of International Exhibitions.” This was to Watson not a particularly idle or passing matter, but, rather, “it is of the utmost importance for the future of International Exhibitions” that the causes of that decline in interest be understood and addressed. He was thinking in what we would consider psychological, material and social terms about exhibitions, the public and the relationships between the two.

Watson had an historical and sociological sense of those relationships. 1871 was most certainly not 1851 in nearly all ways, and Watson thought that recognition of such changes could be used to save exhibitions, so that they could represent and gain from the new “public feeling” and not ignore it. In this way, he did not disagree with Wood that the annual shows had been out of step with the times; he did not, though, focus blame on Cole, as Trueman Wood would do over ten years later, with an almost unrelenting criticism of the Executive Commissioner (Wood 636-637). Watson’s critique addressed both what was intrinsic to the exhibition scheme and the way that the scheme was carried out, a distinction that at least one important twentieth-century scholar would draw (Luckhurst 134-135).

Watson noted how exhibitions were negatively affected by larger economic and materials changes since The Great Exhibition. There was a set of broad new external challenges: “the vast increase of international commerce…the rapid spread of railways, and telegraphs, the establishment of agencies…and of extensive -” warehouses (I2 Dec 10). Modern commerce and infrastructure had replaced medieval fairs, and now even more modern commerce and infrastructure were replacing the earlier exhibitions. Others might celebrate those developments as making it possible to have larger and more international exhibitions, but Watson was not among that crowd. Railways made possible the annual shows in the early 1870s and railways also undermined them.

It was not only trade and technology that had changed in Watson’s view, but also “international relations.” Basking in the golden hues of nostalgia, the Great Exhibition was remembered as the focal and meeting point for peace and trade during “the undeveloped state of international relations” in 1851 (28 Dec 10). Those relations were quite “developed” by 1871—trade agreements and disagree-ments, the Wars of German Unification, many imperial ‘small wars’ across the globe, the American Civil War—so exhibitions served a different international purpose in a new and different world of international relations, a world filled with the scrambles for national, regional and world power. The relative European and British peace of 1851 had been replaced by the increasingly martial relations of the later 1860s and the 1870s. As Wood remarked over thirty years later, “The First World’s Fair did not inaugurate a reign of peace [as many associated with it]…Still, it did its work well for all that” (631). Exhibitions could still serve the purposes of peace, but had to change according to the changing world in order to so. In this case, Watson and Cole did not disagree on the greater purposes of exhibitions, but did not agree on how to achieve those purposes. Although arms companies exhibited weapons, it would be a far cry to consider Cole or Watson as “war-mongers,” or thinking of exhibitions as promoting militaristic relations.

Those two exhibition officials could also agree that exhibitions were no longer perceived as novelties, great and unprecedented events on the public and private calendars, as they allegedly had been for the previous generation. Commissioners and exhibitors could not simply assume that exhibitions by the 1870s would be an effortless magnet for public enthusiasm. A recent scholar has helpfully written about this “exhibition fatigue,” or what he considers the loss of public interest and political will to stage yet one more international exhibition (Geppert 201-202 and 206-218). Watson noted at during the second Annual Exhibition “a growing feeling of indifference, mingled with impatience,” either one of which on a large scale was a death sentence for exhibitions (28 Dec 10).

No subsequent event could quite replace the first, or Great Exhibition, a fact recognized by Watson, even if one factors in some skepticism about enthusiasm for the map iconCrystal Palace or at least filters out the not insignificant opposition and criticism in 1850 and 1851.[7] Memories of exhibition legacies were quite strong well after the events. The “novelty of the undertaking” contributed in Watson’s view to the success of such earlier shows, particularly when one recognized the “intangible influence of the mere start, shock, or impulse,” all of which wears off when exhibitions and other such “shocks” become expected and routine (28 Dec 10). Here was a psychology of exhibitions. There was little if any “impulse” or buzz in 1870, in part because South Kensington had already hosted shows and there had been inter-national exhibitions in England, France and the United States by then.

Cole and Watson understood this problem and each in his own way sought to promote novelty, or something unusual about the next exhibition. Watson wanted to rekindle that “impulse” in 1851 that “acted like giving sight to the blind” (28 Dec 10). This was a nod to what we might consider the popular psychology of exhibitions and what “impulses” they encouraged and exploited. In Cole’s case, he proposed the novelty of the ten-year scheme of displaying the best each year in a limited number of categories. The novelty of the scheme was not Cole’s only motivation, but it was a welcome attribute. Novelty when coupled with practicality were at the forefront of Watson’s exhibition advocacy. He had the experience to support that position, and to recognize that novelty was not an objective without cost. It was also probably not one to be applied to art. “Indeed, I would question the wisdom,” he wrote at the end of 1872, “of having every year an Exhibition of new pictures and statutes” (30 Dec 10). The public wanted novelty in machines, trade and consumer goods, and perhaps the practical arts, but not in the realm of “pure art.” Contemporaries also pondered whether the novelty of exhibits substituted for a more enduring characteristic, such as quality? Should one display a work of art or mechanical innovation because it was novel, or because it was of high quality? Cole would have contended that both sets of objectives were achievable. Others did not always concur.

John Forbes Watson, Exhibitions and Public Life

What else did Watson think were “the organic causes of the existing discontent with Exhibitions,” the query he asked in the first of his three letters to the editor of the London Times? (28 Dec 10) The “faults of management” was one possible answer, but, even if true, that did not “account for the magnitude of the reaction” against the South Kensington shows. Wood might have no love or affection for Cole, but antipathy for the Executive Commissioner was hardly the major cause of popular indifference or discontent. Watson and Wood agreed that the management was inadequate, and Wood would have used stronger terms, but there was more afoul. Even competent Commissioners had to deal with “a restive public,” rather than the allegedly enthusiastic and “willing” earlier public. Could Cole’s successors successfully “persuade, even coax, an unwilling constituency?” The challenge for Watson was to articulate the Exhibitions as a “public institution,” which can “manifest incontrovertible and tangible public utility” (28 Dec 10). He thought that the challenge had been overcome in 1851; not in 1871, and even less so during the subsequent years of Cole’s annual shows.

Watson argued most poignantly that the “public” had changed since the mid-century point and that International Exhibitions did not work in ways that resolved, reconciled and developed together the different interests and parties that comprised his understanding of “the public,” or “the public interest.” That public in terms of its relationships to Exhibitions at the time of the Crystal Palace had included “producers, traders, and consumers,” or what one might consider a market view of the public in keeping with early political economy. Rather, in a later-Victorian vision, one generation later, Watson understood a “wider sense” of the public “the private community, the intellectual, artistic, and material progress of which is aimed at; and, finally, there is the State, which may and should derive from these great undertakings [Exhibitions] certain definite conclusions, shaping policy and influencing its legislation” (28 Dec 10) This vision occupied a via media between Cole’s more laissez-faire one and the quasi-corporatist one held by others at the time. Not surprisingly, Watson’s comments echoed in many ways the ideas of John Stuart Mill at the time about the relations of society, the State, the market and the individual. Patrick Geddes would, in turn, echo Watson’s claims, recommending in his Industrial Exhibitions and Modern Progress that “an ideal exhibition” required by the later 1880s “not only the producer, but the consumer; not only the capitalist, bur artisan; not only artist, but thinker.” They all “must have a say, and bear a hand” if an exhibition were to succeed (16).

Everything connected to the exhibitions should be done in the name and interest of the public, a public that included civil society, the individual and the State, and not necessarily in opposition. Watson understood exhibitions as succeeding or failing to the degree that they appealed to that vision of the public and, in turn, the health of the public was tied to the success or failure of exhibitions. This was a two-way relationship. Having a “public utility” was essential for the success of an exhibition and exhibitions were at the heart of a functioning public life. But that success required exhibition advocates and participants to understand the public and utility, and how they were connected. Not one, or the other, but both, and both in a dynamic relationship. This was a sociological understanding of exhibitions and although articulated by Watson, certainly not unique to that India Office official.

Cole and the South Kensington commissioners were locked in their mid-Victorian world: for Wood, that meant obsession with education rather than paying attention to entertainment; Watson would have tweaked that argument to suggest that the shows were attempting to convince a public whose structure and interests were no longer those of its predecessors. Watson’s letters were a wake-up call that society had changed, not Wood’s reminder that entertainment and education had always been dueling objectives. Constituent parts of the public had changed and so had their expectations for exhibitions. With such a changed society, one could note that the goal posts had moved. Could exhibition commissioners move with them? Wood would echo Watson’s concerns about “the management,” but not draw out his profound and foundational arguments. This was about far more than Cole’s administrative style and ego, far more than about whether to highlight and promote technical education. This was about profound change, changes in society, the individual and their relationships. This was an increasingly post-Classical Liberal view of the world. Cole’s exhibitions were stuck in a Classical phase.

Watson was not shy. For him, society and the public were comprised of “several well-defined separate interests,” and the interests of such “different sections” of public life were not only “different,” but also “in some measure conflicting” (28 Dec 10). It was not the market or politics alone that resolved those conflicts, but  “spasmodic, temporary” exhibitions and “permanent” trade and technical museums. The latter were “efficient and practical,” unlike Cole’s South Kensington exhibitions which were ending when Watson penned his final letter (9 June 6). The shows and institutions represented not only all of the differing and competing interests, but also offered an example of how they could coexist and, at times, be reconciled. In this way, exhibitions were not only about the quality of art, or selling goods to make money, or even promoting a sense or idea of the nation at a time when it seemed that everyone everywhere wanted to be a nation. Exhibitions were about society itself, about how individual and collective interests and behavior publicly converged without coercion.

Watson was not resigned to the death of popular exhibitions. He argued, though, in no uncertain terms that their purposes could by “obtained by other means” if exhibitions did not change and be “more in accordance with the wants and tendencies of present times.” Exhibitions should not lose their fundamental characteristics—“spasmodic, temporary efforts…for the promotion of a public end”—but in keeping those, search for “novelty and competition,” not “systematic completeness or steady usefulness.” In contending such, Watson offered a promising compromise between the assertions and goals of Cole and Wood. Avoid trying to educate everyone about everything, but do not avoid competition. Exhibitions could be educational and entertaining if organizers recognized the ways in which the public wanted to consume that duo of “civilizing” goals (9 June 10).

Previously, exhibitions originated ideas, products and behavior; they were creative. That time had passed, though. “Individual action has outstripped collective action, and the Exhibitions at present do not originate, but merely register, the change wrought by other agencies” (28 Dec 10). There were now in the 1870s many more such “agencies,” particularly in “the commercial world,” and other popular ways to “register” such agencies and changes. Commissioners could rise to the challenge if they recognized those changes and the consequent problem. Exhibitions had to be more than representational, more than duplicating earlier shows, or the other magnets for public attention, such as museums. It was time for Exhibitions to be creative again. How could that goal be achieved? How could organizers, exhibitors and visitors collectively realize what Wood claimed a decade later were “the elements of promise still existing in the [Exhibition] movement” (633).

Watson offered some practical advice. “The Exhibition must be at once profitable to the exhibitors, instructive to the public, and useful to the community at large” (30 Dec 10). This would require selection, organization and description which is not “indiscriminate,” but, rather, takes into account the special needs of each of those interests and the collective public interest (26 Dec 10). Yearly shows for specific types of exhibits would work, particularly if one waits ten years for a repeated category. Paintings, sculpture and “pure art” need not be included every year, whereas science and machines could be. Having said all of that, it was most important to have some “systematic action” to ensure that the exhibition had a measurable and noticeable effect on society and the public. That might be secured by exhibiting what that public wanted. Watson thought information and knowledge “of the laws of health and other matters directly affecting the welfare of the community” would claim more public interest than machines-in-motion (30 Dec 10).

One other way to achieve successful exhibitions was to recognize that, as Watson put it, “exhibitions are in every respect the reverse of museums” and that they both needed the other. This was a distinction with a difference, and Watson advocated for both, but did not blur the gap between a permanent institution with a complete and comprehensive collection and the “spasmodic” exhibition offering what was novel and limited. Each Victorian institution had its own particular “influence” on and relationship with the public (9 June 10). Museums and exhibitions offered the most successful advertisements for different types of objects. That was particularly true for trade and technical museums. Cotton, wool and metals deserved their own museums in their own home towns of, respectively, Manchester, Leeds or Bradford, and Birmingham (30 Dec 10).[8]

Criticism in the 1880s: South Kensington Shows in the Rearview Mirrors

Trueman Wood picked up the criticism of Cole’s shows over ten years after  the last one closed in his essay on “Exhibitions,” published at the time of the more popular and successful topical, or thematic annual South Kensington exhibitions. The Secretary of the Royal Society wrote in 1886 that the first annual show in 1871 “was so dismal a failure” and it was followed by equally failing ones, that they were “thought to have put a stop to exhibitions in this country, at all events for a long time”(Wood 636-637). Whether or not Cole’s failures were the reason, the British international exhibition calendar was relatively empty between 1874 and the early 1880s. The British participated at major shows in the Australian colonies, France and the United States, but did not host such shows for nearly ten years. The success of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition at the time of Wood’s reflections suggests that the warning was probably at least partially correct until South Kensington opened up its thematic gates to men, women and children interested in Fisheries (1883), Health (1884), Inventions (1885) and the British Empire (1886).

We can suggest some connections between Wood’s criticisms and reflections regarding the shows in the 1870s and the successes he engaged in during the 1880s. Looking back, what did Wood consider the causes of Cole’s failures? Why did participants lose interest, or why was that interest dwarfed by the attention inspired by other international exhibitions? Wood had a series of explanations and he was not bashful about sharing them in print. He blamed “the unsuitable” building and its “one enormous passage,” suggesting that “visitors were sick of its interminable length before they had got half round it” (636). One M.P. echoed Wood at the time by complaining that Cole “was the only despot that could have made a procession walk a mile” (qtd. in Cole, Fifty Years 268).

There were also restrictions on the movement of visitors, both to and within the South Kensington complex. Their access and approaches among the various galleries were not as Cole had intended them to be: “free and uninterrupted,” regardless of the length of the halls and sizes of the courts themselves. There was no expected “large place where visitors might assemble and promenade,” as the Executive Commissioner noted was present at previous and later international exhibitions (Cole, Special Report xiv-xvi; “Memorandum” 268). Such criticisms were expressed at the time of the shows in the popular press and in Watson’s published letters. The India Office official Watson had rather strong opinions about the display cases and physical layout of exhibition halls and museums. The architectural plan mattered, and that included the necessity of “a spacious central hall” (9 June 6).

Those were not the first or the last criticisms of Captain Fowke’s South Kensington exhibition halls, given the popular and unflattering nickname of “The Brompton Broilers.”[9] It was, in fact, a rather large and long exhibition space, totaling about one hundred acres, whereas Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace and associated environs in 1851 had been closer to a manageable twenty total acres. Officials learned their lesson and reduced to under twenty-five acres the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, praised by Wood in 1886. That would have pleased the angry M.P., although one can only imagine the depths of his displeasure walking the 215 acres at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1867 (Findling and Pelle 413-417). Bigger was not always better for this generation of English exhibition advocates and visitors, a reminder that public culture required management and some semblance of rationality.

Wood recognized the commercial advantages of exhibitions, but they were apparently no longer as attractive to business and manufacturing interests as previous shows had been. There were now so many other ways to secure consumers and profits that advertising by exhibiting was a harder sell for the commissioners to secure. English manufacturers still turned to overseas shows and in the case of Vienna in 1873 that opportunity undermined rather than supported Cole’s plans. The “multiplication” of exhibitions and in some cases, their overlap, was “not popular with manufactures,” noted Wood (637). How could commissioners have convinced businesses to exhibit in London while also doing so in Vienna?

Wood also disagreed with how exhibitors should be recognized and awarded. Cole thought that an expert evaluation with recommendations was enough. His original plans called for “competent Judges” to evaluate exhibits with published “discriminating reports,” but that “no prizes should be awarded” (“Memorandum Upon a Scheme” 269) Not according to Wood. Exhibitors expected prizes and awards, which they could use as part of their advertising after the event. Those were to Wood “testimony of his [the exhibitor’s] success” in a way which professional, even if “expert,” advice could not provide, or could only truly provide after a series of tests. Exhibitions were not organized for such tests (644-645). The recipients, or exhibitors were thought of differently by the two exhibition advocates: Cole assumed that the formal report would help the exhibitor improve his product, whereas Wood understood that a prize would help him sell that product. In keeping with that goal, Cole and his fellow commissioners organized a series of technical lectures and provided a handful of scholarships (“A Special Report” xxxii). One reading of Watson’s published views is that he thought both goals could be realized by displaying temporarily at an exhibition with an award and more permanently at a technical museum with professional information provided (9 June 6).

The 1874 show had included jurors and tests, but the Royal Society allegedly ran out of funds before the reports and citations could be prepared and distributed (Wood 644). One can speculate about the cause of that apparent dearth, although it can be noted that Cole was consistently opposed to prizes as he prepared for the annual shows and they unfolded. Perhaps that personal view influenced the available funds? Cole later admitted that “prizes are attractive and exciting,” points with which Wood would have agreed, “although theoretically and philosophically indefensible” (“Work with International Exhibitions” 271). That latter point is one with which Wood and many others disagreed. That being the case, Wood was still not done with his criticisms.

The Royal Society of Arts official continued in 1886 that there had been too much “red tape” for exhibitors and not enough garden space for visitors in the early 1870s (636). That was most notably the case after the Horticultural Society withdrew from the International Exhibition and subsequently charged visitors an additional fee to enter its part of the South Kensington complex. The Society’s actions were later blamed by Cole and historians as one of the reasons for visitors’ complaints and for the financial debt (A Special Report xiv-xv and xxxvi-xxxvii). And, Wood was still not done, for there was one more compelling reason for failure in his mind, but he had to wait a few years after the shows to express it.

That reason was Sir Henry Cole, the “despotic” Executive Commissioner of the mid-Victorian equipoise. It was certainly easier to criticize that lion of English exhibitions once he was resting in his grave and had been doing so for a few years. He was a formidable figure and although not above criticism during his career, was a force that one more than likely avoided angering. We are reminded of the fawning and begging dog in the satirical print (Fig. 1). Cole was the driving force at the South Kensington complex and easily the name other than Prince Albert’s most commonly linked to English exhibition participation. That was even more the case after the Prince’s premature death on the eve of the 1862 London International Exhibition. As recently as 1867, Cole had been officially charged with ensuring the administration and arrangement of the British Section at the Paris Universal that year. He was connected seemingly for eternity with the Royal Consort, the Great Exhibition and its enduring Commission.

“Nothing stopped him,” wrote Wood in 1886 about Cole (637). He “was not a good man to reconcile conflicting interests or to pacify discontented exhibitors.” That required what might be considered managerial and social skills. Cole was an administrator and an advocate, not a consensus-builder. Wood recognized that Cole was an able, powerful and capable administrator, but that he “seemed never to know what the public would like; perhaps he never cared.” That verdict seems downright positive compared to what Wood had to say about Cole in the pre-war History of the Royal Society of Arts. In that publication, Wood pulled no punches: “It may be admitted that Cole had in full measure the defects of his qualities. He liked having his own way, and generally got it. He disliked opposition and was ruthless with his opponents” (359).

Unpacking Wood’s criticism and taking into account personal enmity and professional disagreements, what can historians take away of note? Cole had argued for selective rather than all-inclusive exhibitions—that is, international and not universal —pre-opening participation of national commissioners to establish “any code of general regulations,” arrangement of exhibits by type, or classes, and not by exhibiting nations, prohibition of selling exhibited objects, and the provision of authoritative and evaluative reports on such exhibits, rather than the awarding of prizes (“Memorandum upon a Scheme” 269-270). Those well-intentioned attributes were in the end blamed by many at the time and since for the failure of the shows. One might also note that the shows were not only Cole’s and thus some responsibility can be borne by other key figures who were not only figureheads, but who also helped set the tone: the Prince of Wales (President of the Royal Commission), Marquis of Ripon (Chair of the General Purposes Committee), and Earl Granville (Chair of the Finance Committee). They provided gravitas and authority to Cole’s vision and policies. It is also significant that Wood admitted that there were conflicts and disagreements among and between officials and exhibitors, a claim in contrast to the public image of a festival of cooperation, goodwill and common interests.

Perhaps most revealing though, is the suggestion that Cole either did not understand the public – visitors, consumers, observers—or, if he did, he ignored what it wanted. By the middle of the 1880s, Wood might use this criticism of Cole, whether warranted or not, to justify the entertainment aspects of the South Kensington shows rather than their educational objectives, and to suggest that they were successful because they entertained rather than the failures people remembered from the 1870s. In this case, it was not previous exhibition success that guided current policies, but the perceptions of previous failures. The Crystal Palace had often been referred to as a way of informing exhibition organizers what they should do. The ghost of Cole’s annual shows suggested the opposite: what should not be done. Did the public change? Was it really Cole’s arrogance?

The answers did not really matter to Wood as long as exhibitions provided “a cheap, harmless, and pleasant source of recreation to many thousands” in contrast to the images one had of the earlier shows and why they failed (639). It was true that Cole thought education was most important and that the annual shows proposed for the 1870s might educate by displaying in comparison and competition selected specimens of specific trades, goods and inventions (“Memorandum upon a Scheme” 269-270). The Official Guide for the final show in 1874 made clear that those specimens would be instructive because of their high aesthetic and utility, as well as the high quality of labor exercised in their production (Greenhalgh 19). Exhibitions were not created and staged for holiday crowds, or circus-goers.

Cole was adamantly opposed to exhibitions being mistaken for fairs, and was not bashful about making such claims in public. He simultaneously advocated “the interests of public education and technical education” in 1874 at an Art School awards ceremony and one year later rather blatantly in a public address about “National Culture and Recreation: Antidotes to Vice” (“Mr. Cole” 6; Cole). The timing is suggestive: the struggling fourth year of his proposed ten. Was this an attempt to convince others, in opposition to Wood’s understanding that Cole did not take such steps. We would have to stretch our historical imagination beyond its breaking point to see Wood and his gang delivering or appreciating such a moral purpose for exhibitions. They were for Wood an antidote to boredom, not to vice.

Wood does seem a bit harsh on Cole. The latter seemed to care when publicly criticized and could be self-reflective. His comprehensive official report after 1874 was an exercise in soul-searching as it blamed and contradicted many of the principles he had laid down in his official pre-1870 memoranda. He did not run from those concerns and clearly noted which ones had been his and which ones of those might help explain the failed shows. He was not averse to also blaming others, such as the Horticultural Society, and he does seem to be wrestling with what the public wanted or how best to reconnect exhibitions and the public interest. Cole’s shows had not made that connection, in contrast to what was remembered about exhibitions in 1851 and 1862. In this and other ways, that Special Report on the Annual International Exhibitions (1875) is a valuable document for students of exhibitions, cultural history and what constituted the public.

Lessons Learned? The Future Exhibitions

Among the most helpful ways to understand Cole’s, Wood’s and Watson’s discussions is to see them in light of a common question after 1874: was there a future for international exhibitions? As Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) wrote from north of the Scottish border: “the time was ripe for a new departure” for exhibitions (6-7). That sentiment was echoed in the colony of New South Wales. One answer could be the end of exhibitions, or did one prefer new and different shows? Geddes proposed “Industrial Exhibitions,” English commissioners turned to more thematic shows, sometimes honoring specific relationships or historical moments, and overseas, fatigue with metropolitan and agricultural shows inspired the novelty of international exhibitions. What Cole avoided at South Kensington, exhibition officials in Melbourne, Calcutta and Sydney embraced. The first colonial and truly international exhibition was held in Sydney in 1879. It was followed by nearly twenty such shows in major colonial cities before the outbreak of the Great War.

Closer to home, Cole recommended that pictures and machines should be separated from other exhibits and be displayed in their own respective galleries. All other displays were to be “arranged by the countries which send them,” and prizes should be provided (“Work with International Exhibitions” 264-271). Cole admitted that his classification and display were more scientific and technically useful, as in a museum, but that they were “less picturesque and popular” at exhibitions. Exhibitions were not museums, a point Watson made rather strongly in his public letters (e.g. 9 June 6). What was good for the museum gander was not necessarily good for the exhibition goose. “Inter-national” in “International Exhibitions” meant comparing different nations as much as comparing the same object from different nations. Exhibitions were also not necessarily to mirror how Pitt-Rivers and his disciples were organizing at the time material culture.

Cole’s “Future Exhibitions” were to be funded by only private money and not public funds or taxation, and that men, women and children were not to “make each international exhibition bigger than its predecessor” (“Work with International Exhibitions” 271). There were smaller privately-funded exhibitions in the near future, such as those held at Earl’s Court in London. It was though, perhaps too much to ask the public not to compare events and not to seek an ever more ambitious upcoming one. Visitors’ books more often than not contain comments comparing the current exhibition with previous ones that the visitors had attended. That comparison seems natural. Taming those public expectations was a delicate business as one wanted to fuel public opinion and anticipation, but not beyond what the event could fulfill. “Exhibition mania” could help serve the objectives of shows as well as potentially undermine them. Increasingly sophisticated and “scientific” advertising strove to control and exploit the flow of that mania.

Future exhibitions often included the sale of display goods, including those created on site. This was not popular with local merchants, but increasingly the events included some type of “bazaar,” or market. Cole feared that exhibitions would become such bazaars; Wood feared that they would not become department stores. The later exhibitions were neither pure bazaars nor department stores, but probably included more sales than Cole would have preferred. The question of selling goods was not only one made in reference to local producers who might feel unfair competition, or in the face of the argument that the exhibition should be outside of or above the mercantile world (“The Question of Annexes to the International Exhibition” 255). Both were significant. Additionally, though, and perhaps more fundamental to the exhibition experience was the question of what value did a monetary amount prove at an exhibition?

An additional significant common concern was whether there could be any quality control.  If goods were to be sold, how could the organizers guarantee only those of the highest quality, as Cole wanted to display? Opponents could contend that no such guarantees of high quality existed in public life or a functioning market, so why should they in the exhibitions themselves? Visitors should see the tasteful and the tasteless, the cheap and the expensive, as they did every day. Those men and women advocated for consumerism and pleasure at the exhibitions; Cole advocated for education and improvement. This was a distinction not only in the purposes of exhibitions and the relationship between visitors and displays, but also in a larger sense, the question of what gave value to material culture?

One answer since the Great Exhibition had been competition. Let the exhibitors and their exhibits compete against one another, let expert judges evaluate them, then publicly share such evaluations and reports. The result could be a prize, or award, or some type of certification that distinguished one exhibit and exhibitor from another. One might consider that the market response. Wood, though, among many others, did not think that all of the later South Kensington shows were to be guided by such market values. He supported the decision to provide all exhibitors with some type of equal documentation at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, in part because the show was intended to suggest the self-sufficiency and unity of the Empire’s many differing constituent parts. That message was not brought home by comparing and contrasting the worthiness, or sale price, of wool or furniture from different colonies, but by celebrating how different polities and goods provided for the wholeness of the imperial community.

Looking closely, one can detect a sense of early imperial federation in place of Cole’s honoring of free trade. The material culture at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition was given value and merit because it was from and contributed to the Empire, not because of some market value, or price, expert’s opinion or quality in comparison with another imperial product.  Wood and his associates abandoned Cole’s internationalism, asserting a colony’s product was more worthwhile than the same product produced by a foreign country. Those would include exhibits of both raw materials and manufactured goods.

What Wood was suggesting about the value of material culture was also a point about the public and public interest. Turning towards the end of the century, he and Watson understood the sea change generating a potentially new “equipoise.” Unlike Cole, who understood that such balance was the result of competing interests in competition one with the other, Watson and Wood conceived of a public comprised of differing groups and interests that did not compete, but found some other way to create and honor society and a sense of the public. The new breed of South Kensington exhibitions during the mid-1880s organized in part by Wood would do so, as would the British sections he oversaw at the Paris Universal Exposition (1889) and Chicago Columbian World’s Fair (1893).[10]

Those newer shows and displays tended to more explicitly emphasize traditions, entertainment, patriotic nationalism and aggressive imperial relations, rather than technical education and artistic standards. They were organized and advertised in ways that recognized Watson’s understanding of “the public interest” and the relationships between that interest and exhibitions. Wood continued to think of each successful exhibition as “an enormous advertising agency” (641). Their incomplete successes would vindicate his honest claim that “[f]ew schemes do realise the expectations of their projectors” and also Watson’s bold one to promote “the elements of promise still existing in the [exhibition] movement” (Wood 633; Watson, 28 Dec 10). Those “elements” and the “promise” survived the failures of the South Kensington shows in the early 1870s, but some of the challenges endured. As Geddes wrote in his study of Industrial Exhibitions and Modern Progress: “New inventions and new details of all kinds hardly need exhibitions to bring them before us, our daily life and daily press do this fairly as it is” (56). Wise words for Cole, as well.

Historical Reflections and Conclusions

Historians have not been particularly kind or attentive to the Annual Exhibitions at South Kensington during the early 1870s. Among those suggesting Cole’s failures have been important exhibition scholars, both old and recent. It is not only the loud silence of the events’ absence in their works, but the nature of the rare comments when expressed. At the time of the Great Exhibition’s centennial and the Greater Britain Exhibition in London, Kenneth W. Luckhurst, the godfather of exhibitions scholars, provided a brief discussion of the origins of the shows and Cole’s plans. He concluded that restricting the shows was an “experiment,” and “[u]nfortunately, the experiment was a failure, not so much for any intrinsic reason as because of the way in which the ideas was carried out” (134-135). After considering the issues raised by contemporaries, Luckhurst might have underplayed what he considered the “intrinsic” difficulties and unpopularity of Cole’s schema, although there is little to disagree with the criticism of the “the way” in which that plan was “carried out.” The idea itself and the resulting events were both held accountable.

Closer to our own time, Paul Greenhalgh’s influential 1988 study of British, French and American exhibitions mentions a few points about the South Kensington shows in passing, but the discussion is not developed as it is so helpfully for inter-national exhibitions that did not “fail” (19, 32, 58-59, 120, 199, 208-209). The four shows between 1871 and 1874 merit but two pages of text in the second edition of the oft-cited Encyclopedia of World’s Fairs and Expositions (Findling and Pelle 44-46). Even the under-studied 1862 London International earned six pages (27-33).[11]

The general consensus of failure or indifference at the time can be noted in the realm of Victorian public opinion, so scholars pursuing new and alternative primary sources might be frustrated. There were the expected editorials, notes and illustrations in the metropolitan press, including the London Times, but not much else and fewer than during previous British international exhibitions. Whereas the major Victorian-era periodicals had considered rather extensively in their pages earlier exhibitions, most notably the Great Exhibition and the Paris shows, that body of influential writing barely mentioned the South Kensington shows. Contributors to Blackwood’s, The Contemporary Review, Fraser’s and other notable publications were far more concerned about war on the Continent, map iconIreland and domestic literary matters.  Vienna’s International garnered some attention, as did specific art exhibitions in London, but not Cole’s grand events.[12] Cole’s initial ten-year scheme died in the face of opposition or, perhaps worse, lack of interest.

In the longer-term history of exhibitions, the 1870s were also the moment of a generational shift among exhibition organizers and commissioners. The mid-Victorian generation dominated by giants such as Cole and Owen Jones (1809-1874) was passing the proverbial torch to a second-generation, Sir Francis Philip Cunliffe-Owen (1828-1894) and Wood among them in London. Jones died the year of the last annual South Kensington show; Cole eight years later, a year before the birth of the successful topical exhibitions at South Kensington. Those included the International Fisheries (1883) and Colonial and Indian (1886) Exhibitions. Cole spent the final years of his life out in the professional wilderness, very rarely officially involved in exhibitions, but completing a comprehensive and revealing final official report on the annual exhibitions. In contrast, the younger Wood participated in various ways in the world of exhibitions, rather often via his association with the Royal Society, until “the long weekend” between the World Wars. His opinions regarding exhibitions carried authority.

The two generations had different ideas for different times, and those were not only different ideas about exhibitions, but also about public life and cultural institutions in general. Or, perhaps more accurately, the generations placed different emphases in the older duality of entertainment and education, and the two groups answered differently enduring questions about exhibitions themselves. Cole’s annual shows were grounded in education and improvement; they did not ignore entertainment, but that goal was secondary. Wood and his generation reversed that relationship, and education became the subordinate objective to entertainment. Thus, were exhibitions fairs or museums, or both? Additionally, could one think of exhibitions as department stores, making available the purchase of exhibited goods in these large “bazaars”? Even the classification and spatial organization of exhibits had been debated. Should visitors observe, for example, woods and timbers alongside other woods and timbers, or next to the displaying nation’s other exhibits? Those issues had been on the agenda for years and one might offer that the South Kensington shows and the need to explain their failure brought them to the forefront.  Cole at the time and then Luckhurst almost one hundred years later both suggested that organizing space by type of exhibit rather than having national courts contributed to the shows’ demise and eventual termination (Cole, Special Report; Luckhurst 134-135).

Consideration of Sir Henry Cole’s South Kensington International Exhibitions is not only a study of the ignored events and failures in and of themselves, but what they meant in the longer-term history of exhibitions and public life. In this case, the consensus and conversation about failure led to changes in exhibitions, and changes which were consistent with larger issues in society, politics and culture. The post-mortem discussion over the management and buildings, relatively small number of visitors, the difficulties they faced, whether or not goods could be sold on site and should garner prizes, and the limitations on what could be officially exhibited reveals how exhibitions were embedded in the wider context of late-Victorian England and the wider “British world.” Failures at home and abroad in the colonies were found in the internal nature and workings of the shows, as well as in their relations to the larger sphere of public culture, rather broadly defined. Poetically, one is also reminded that regardless of attendance and revenue, nearly all exhibitions during the second half of the nineteenth century were succeeded by others. “We must not forget,” wrote the editors of the Illustrated London News during the debate about the future of the Crystal Palace in late 1851, “that the [Great] Exhibition dies not die childless” (“The Close of the Exhibition” 441-442).” One could say the same about Cole’s “imperfect experiments,” the South Kensington Annual International Exhibitions between 1871 and 1874.

published December 2017

Peter H. Hoffenberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, where he teaches courses in the histories of Britain, the British Empire, Modern Europe and Economic Thought. His various publications address exhibitions, traditional Indian Art, Australian science and travel, generally, but not exclusively, during the Victorian period. He can be reached at


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[1] Among many other examples, Wood held official positions at the series of thematic exhibitions held at South Kensington in the mid-1880s and at the Paris Universal Exposition (1889) and Chicago Worlds Columbian Exposition (1893). Please see “The Late Sir Henry Trueman Wood,” Engineering 11 January 1929, 43-44 and “Wood, Sir Henry Trueman Wright (1845-1929),” Matthew, H. C. G. and Brian Harrison eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 60, Wolmark-Zuylestein, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 105-106.

[2] The map iconPompeian Court was considered by the Illustrated London News to be “the most attractive, as well as the most interesting” of the many historical and architectural courts at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. Please see 20 January 1855, 62 (text) and 64 (illustration).

[3] For information about the Australian colonies’ commissioners, exhibits and exhibitors, please see “Catalogue of Exhibits Forwarded to London Exhibition,” Victorian Commission, London International Exhibition, 1873. Official Record, Containing Introduction, Catalogues, Reports and Recommendations of the Experts, Official Awards of the Commissioners, and Essays and Statistics on the Social and Economic Resources of the Colony of Victoria. Melbourne: Mason, Firth & M’Cutcheon, Printers, 1873; The London International Exhibition of 1873. The Victorian Exhibition, Official Catalogue of Exhibits, Melbourne: Francis A. Masterman, 1873 and Catalogue of the Exhibits in the New South Wales Annexe of the Exhibition, 1871. Sydney: Gordon & Gotch, 1871.

[4] The “noble” permanent Indian section at South Kensington is discussed and praised in map iconConway (86-98), and Bullen.

[5] Watson’s letters appeared under the heading “International Exhibitions” on 10 Dec. 1872 (10), 28 Dec. 1872 (10) and 9 June 1874 (6). They were republished in at least two texts: International Exhibitions, London: Henry S. King, 1873 and as Appendices A-C in On the Measures Required for the Efficient Working of the India Museum and Library.

[6] For biographical information, please see “John Forbes Watson, M.A., M.D., LL.D.,” “Dr. Forbes Watson,” and “John Forbes Watson.” The latter obituary included: “Of his many…literary and scientific products it need only be said that they have placed him, in the opinion of those competent to judge, on the level of Prinsep and Sir William Jones…and the work he accomplished in promoting trade between India and England is great and enduring.”

[7] Thomas Hardy’s main character in “The Fiddler of the Reels” (1893) remarked more poetically about the first exhibition, the Great Exhibition. It was: “[t]he only exhibition that ever made, or ever will make, any impression upon the imagination …None of the younger generation can realize the sense of novelty it produced in us”. His narration continues noting the term “exhibition” became a noun and adjective in common conversation at the time, as in “exhibition weather; exhibition spirits”. The Great Exhibition was at the center of public references and consciousness. It was “an extraordinary chronological frontier or transit line,” which no subsequent exhibition could be (152).

[8] For more extensive considerations of museums, libraries and other cultural institutions, please see Watson’s On the Measures Required for the Efficient Working of the India Museum and Library… (1874).

[9] Cole wrote that Fowke “was very patient under much unjust treatment.” There were professional, financial and aesthetic issues (“Brief Notes” 353). For a contemporary account of the structures, please see Some Account of the Buildings Designed by Francis Fowke.

[10] For additional personal and professional information about Wood, please see “The Late Sir Henry Trueman Wood” and Smith.

[11] For a helpful introduction to the South Kensington shows and surrounding issues, please see Prasch. Many thanks to Prof. Prasch for sharing that paper and for his advice and insight on this and other projects over the years. Among the limited number of scholarly studies of the annual international exhibitions is Trapp.

[12] For example, please see “Vienna in Exhibition Time” and Pollock.