Essay About The Great Exhibition In 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 has become a touchstone for the nineteenth century. The Crystal Palace produced a commodity world, an imperial spectacle, a picture of capitalism, a liberal dream, a vision of modern life. Historians have saturated the Great Exhibition with meanings.

This collection of essays exposes how meaning has been produced around the Great Exhibition. It contains a series of critical readings of the official and popular historical record of the Exhibition. Critics and historians of art, culture, design and literature have been brought together to examine the objects, the images, the documents and the fictions of 1851. Their essays explore the determined use of industrial knowledge, the contested definitions of nation and colony, and the actual control of the space of the Crystal Palace after the Great Exhibition closed.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 presents new interpretations of one of the most significant exhibitions in the nineteenth century and will be essential reading for anyone studying cultural history, design history, art history and literature.

Module Aims

• introduce you to the context in which the Great Exhibition was established and developed; • explore the ways in which the Great Exhibition made use of, and how it brought together, art and science; • give you a sense of how debates about the Great Exhibition relate to broader historiographical discussions about the nature of Victorian Britain’s place in the world, its relationship with its Colonies, and with Europe and the Americas; • reconstruct the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition through the use of contemporary images and descriptions, developing your skills in working with a range of visual and written source material

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the chronology of, and personalities involved with, the Great Exhibition, alongside current historiographical debates surrounding its interpretation;
  • the wider context of industrial change, including global technological advancement, new manufacturing techniques and new approaches to art and design;
  • key primary sources and literature, charting the development of the Exhibition, contemporary experiences of it, and reactions to it;
  • key examples from the Exhibition itself which you can use to explore a range of phenomena, including the creation of new taxonomies and the Victorian love of commodification
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • participate fully and constructively in group discussion, arguing your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding
  • analyse critically a variety of textual, visual and material culture sources
  • structure your ideas and research findings into well-ordered presentations and essays
  • understand and contextualise primary source material and express this in the ‘gobbet' examination
  • engage with secondary literature on the Great Exhibition, and contribute to the debates relating to the historiography of Victorian Britain and its relationship to the wider world
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • utilise and develop your time-management skills
  • develop and improve your presentation skills
  • participate effectively in group discussion
  • locate and use effective textual, visual and material culture sources in the library and on-line, synthesising this material in order to develop cogent arguments
  • research historical questions and communicate your findings convincingly and concisely in written essays and reports

In this module we will explore the genesis of the Great Exhibition. We will consider: the climate in which it was established and the exhibitions across Europe which inspired its conception; the work of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce; the foundation of the Royal Commission; and the technological and artistic advances which the Exhibition aimed to celebrate. We will engage in an analysis of the Exhibition building, nicknamed the Crystal Palace by Punch magazine, exploring its creation, humble beginnings and design innovation. We will experience travelling to the Exhibition, taking advantage of a new travel innovation, the Thomas Cook Tour, and utilising the burgeoning rail network. Finally, we will venture inside the exhibition itself, assessing how the objects on display – ranging from an eighty-blade penknife to a stuffed elephant – incorporated the twin values of science and art. Examining public reaction to the Exhibition through published accounts, newspaper articles, letters, diaries, drawings and prints, we will determine the role played by the Great Exhibition in shaping the world view of Victorian Britain. An indicative list of seminar topics would include • Exposition: the International Exhibition trend • Prince Albert and The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce • Greenhouses and Water lilies: Building the Crystal Palace • Travelling to the Exhibition: Thomas Cook Tours and trains • Visiting the Exhibition: Opening Day, 1st May 1851 • Inside the Crystal Palace 1: Nation and Empire • Inside the Crystal Palace 2: Foreign Countries • Inside the Crystal Palace 3: Refreshments and souvenirs • Commodity Fetishism: establishing a world view of Victorian Britain?

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • short presentations by students • group discussions including feedback from the tutor • detailed reading and analysis of the module texts Learning activities include: • preparatory reading, individual research and study prior to each class • preparing and delivering short presentations relating to specific aspects of the module • studying textual and visual primary sources • participation in group and class discussion In this module learning and teaching activities focus on helping you to explore and investigate the ideas and themes outlined above. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. The presentations (by you and your fellow students) and your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated by these presentations will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written and visual sources, as well as surviving material culture. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the essay and examination exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions. Responses from tutor and your fellow students to your presentation will also give you formative feedback.

Preparation for scheduled sessions90
Completion of assessment task90
Wider reading or practice77
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Gold, John R. and Margaret M. (2005). Cities of culture: Staging international festivals and the urban agenda, 1851-2000. 

Hoffenberg, Peter H. (2001). An Empire on Display: English, Indian and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War. 

Purbrick, Louise (2001). The Great Exhibition of 1851: new interdisciplinary essays. 

Wesemael, Pieter van (2001). Architecture of instruction and delight: a socio-historical analysis of World Exhibitions as a didactic phenomenon (1798-1851-1970). 

Gibbs-Smith, C. H. (1951). The Great Exhibition of 1851. 

Young, Paul (2009). Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order. 

Babbage, Charles (1851). The exposition of 1851: or, views of the industry, the science, and the government, of England. 

Leapman, Michael (2001). The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation. 

Auerbach, Jeffrey A and Peter H Hoffenberg (eds) (2008). Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851. 

Greenhalgh, Paul. (1990). Ephemeral Vistas: History of the Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and the World’s Fairs. 


MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 50%
Exercise 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *