Victorian Modernity? Writing the Great Exhibition



There is no question that for Victorian Britain the Great Exhibition became a defining event for mapping not just ‘The Progress of the Nation’,1 but the whole progress of mankind into a modern age. Account after account among the enormous quantity of writing inspired by the Exhibition represented it as an unprecedented experience, a landmark of the extent of human self-transformation, and a starting point for yet further development. Prince Albert’s characterisation of the aims of the Exhibition at his Mansion House Banquet speech of 1850 makes these points forcefully:

Nobody... who had paid any attention to the peculiar features of our present era, will doubt for a moment that we are living at a period of most wonderful transition...

Gentlemen — the Exhibition of 1851 is to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions2

Other accounts gave, with varying emphases, a similar sense of the Exhibition’s uniqueness and promise. Henry Cole, prime mover with Albert of the Exhibition, wrote in comparatively restrained terms that ‘for the first time in the world’s history, the men of Arts, Science, and Commerce were permitted by their respective governments to meet together to discuss and promote those objects for which civilised nations exist’.3


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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