Lithograph by William Simpson of the Grand Entrance of the Crystal Palace, 1851
Great Britain began to undergo industrialization in the 18th century, becoming the first nation to experience the triumphs and challenges of a manufacturing-based economy—an epochal transformation reflected in every aspect of social and cultural life.
The products of this new economy were showcased in The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851. The brainchild of Prince Albert, who was eager to regale the world with his country’s industrial progress, it was popularly known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, a nod to its magnificent iron-and-glass building designed by Joseph Paxton.
The Crystal Palace became a paradigm for future international exhibitions or world’s fairs. Its visitors were dazzled by the displays of more than 100,000 objects from Britain and its empire that ranged from the sublime (a hydraulic press used in bridge building) to the ridiculous (a barometer powered by leeches).
The objects best remembered today were purchased to seed the collection of the new Museum of Manufactures, which opened in 1852. Its mission was to educate producers and consumers about the principles of good design, and it was eventually renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum (today’s V&A) in recognition of Prince Albert’s pioneering work.
One of the far-ranging effects of the Great Exhibition was the beginning of a public discussion about the role of art in industrial manufacture, with the hope that displays arranged around themes and categories would improve public taste and interior decoration.
Art historian Morna O'Neill examines how the Crystal Palace paved the way for subsequent international exhibitions and its role in the development of museums specializing in decorative art and industry.
O'Neill is associate professor of art history in the department of art at Wake Forest University.
In the spirit of all things Victorian, teatime refreshments featuring sweets and sparkling wine will be served after the program.
World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1/2 credit*
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