The Great Exhibition of 1851

Digital Scholarship from English 480/580 at Oregon State University

Physical Experience

      Some marketing strategies for The Great Exhibition were straight forward. For example, it was clearly marketed that the exhibition was a way to experience international culture without leaving the country. On the other hand, the physical experience of people attending the exhibition was not so explicitly addressed but the marketing still left perspective attendees with a clear perception of what it would be like. For instance, in both the images from the Illustrated London News and from the Victoria and Albert Museum below there seems to be a large amount of space in relation to the people. These images also portray happiness in both the body language and facial expressions of those attending the exhibit. Although all of the illustrations included are intended to serve other purposes such as showing the magnificence of the exhibits or the excitement surrounding the Queen’s visits, they all inexplicitly give the viewer an understanding of the physical experience of attending The Great Exhibition.

      In contrast to the supposed smiling faces and multitude of space for movement, realistic accounts of the The Great Exhibition paint a different story. The Autobiography of Mary Smith that is posted below describes the exhaustion of attempting to see the entire Exhibition in one day. Because Mary Smith could only afford to attend for one day, the whole experience seems to have been stressful and overwhelming. Zadock Thompson’s journal also expresses the impossibility of seeing all of the exhibits in one day. Although he had the luxury of attending at his leisure, Thompson still felt exhausted after his visits. Another reality that is clear through the writings of Mary Smith and Zadock Thompson is that the exhibits were extremely crowded with little to no extra space.

      Clearly the marketed perceptions and realities of physical experience were different. It may never be understood whether this was a conscious choice to attract attendees and further British influence and power, or simply a stylistic choice by the illustrator. What can be understood is that a person who attended the Exhibition expecting to be overjoyed and comfortable was not likely to have such a positive experience.   

Physical Experience