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Imperially Structuring Global Interactions: The Great Exhibition of 1851 and Popular Imperialism

Published: 17 April 2023 - Joshua Grey

Studying for the MA in Global and Comparative History, I recently wrote an essay on the Great Exhibition of 1851 in relation to British popular imperialism of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The key aim of my essay was to establish that the key catalysts for popular imperialism were constructed racial hierarchies and othering through geographical dispersal. The Great Exhibition provided a key case study to establish this. This case study also helped to define global interactions as wider than interactions within a geographical area. Global interactions could be housed within a single building and also imperially structured to achieve specific outcomes in relation to the aims of popular imperialism. In line with theories advanced by Doreen Massey of space being continually constructed and acted on,[1] the Great Exhibition exemplifies a space of global interaction which is structured on imperial racial hierarchies.

The Great Exhibition as a Structured Space of Global Interaction

The Great Exhibition was set up as a celebration of industry, an event which aimed to display the advances made by humanity technologically.[2] However, the space of the exhibition provided more than just an outlet to display industrial advancement. It was also an opportunity to display British might in contrast to the colonies and the wider world. The structure and elements of the Great Exhibition highlight this aim. The building itself was a display, the Crystal Palace being a marvel of design and engineering which housed the space of interaction. Within the Crystal Place, exhibits which displayed British industry contained recent industrial innovations. As a contrast, exhibits from colonial possessions contained products which were used to display difference or “otherness”. The India exhibit contained materials and products which showed an element of, as Lara Kriegel describes, ‘Oriental splendour’, whilst jewels and other precious goods showed an Indian domesticity to the British empire.[3] The exhibit for the Caribbean also was designed to show a contrast between itself and industrial Britain. Items on display included raw agricultural produce like sugar cane and handcrafted products

India Exhibition

Figure 1. ‘Part of the Indian Section’, [1851], engraving, Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (1854). Public Domain.
Caribbean Exhibit
Figure 2. ‘The Section exhibiting Colonial Produce from the Bahamas, Trinidad, the Eastern Archipelago, etc.’, engraving, Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (1854). Public Domain.

These exhibits produced a contrast between the British industrial self and the othered imperial colonies. The selective choosing of exhibits in the Great Exhibition structured this difference between British industrial might and perceived “backwards” systems of production in places such as India and the Caribbean. The Great Exhibition, therefore, structured a space of interaction between the European metropole and colonial periphery. From this, the Crystal Palace becomes a space of imperial power and structured global interactions. Imperial power in London itself was, as Alan Lester argues, present and continually constructed in spaces and buildings such as Downing Street or Exeter Hall.[4] The Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition expands on that, constructing a space of imperial power but also a space of structured interaction between the metropole and the othered periphery.

The Influence of the Great Exhibition’s Structure

The influences of a structured space of imperial power and imperial interactions provided a space for popular imperialism. The space was designed to influence the image of empire as well as the colonies to the visiting spectators. Narration of the empire through events such as the Great Exhibition were designed to manufacture a support of empire among the general populace of the British metropole. Popular imperialism was a form of cultural production which had the central aim of propagandising empire for the general populace. This would be achieved through production of goods and cultural symbols which would highlight empire through general everyday products, advertising or other forms of culture such as literature. John MacKenzie argues that this form of cultural production became prominent in the late nineteenth century as a way of forming the British population’s identity.[5] But the Great Exhibition was also a form of popular imperialism before the period in which MacKenzie argues popular imperialism exploded in prominence. The aforementioned structured interaction with empire was juxtaposed with British industrial capability. The key idea behind that juxtaposition was to provide an implicit message of the positives of industrialisation in Britain and to provide, as Paul Young describes it, ‘An idealized account of free trade from political economy’.[6] This idealised account was that of British industrial capability from the Industrial Revolution and how that economic strength could act as force of modernisation for the colonies and non-Europeans.

Narration of the colonies, meanwhile, was a production of narratives of racial hierarchy to further justify imperialism. Whilst the Great Exhibition’s structured space acted on the spectators as a way to push British identification with empire, it also structured interactions with the colonised people who were not present. The general population were subject to objects and images of the imperial possessions they would not, in some cases, have interacted with before. This structured interaction with the colonies and the objects on display portrayed an image of the colonies and non-Europeans as underdeveloped. The effect of that kind of structured interaction influenced thinking on race in relation to popular imperialism. When juxtaposed with British industrial development, it informed a thinking in line with W E B Du Bois’ ideas of a “psychological wage”, that of relating to a perceived racial superiority or privilege.[7]

Joshua Grey is an MA Global and Comparative History student at the University of Warwick.

[1] Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), p.32.
[2] Paul Young, ‘Mission Impossible: Globalization and the Great Exhibition’, in Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851, ed., by Jeffrey A Auerbach and Peter H Hoffenberg (Aldershot: Ashgate Pub. Co., 2008), p.4
[3] Lara Kriegel, ‘Narrating the Subcontinent in 1851: India at the Crystal Palace, in The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p.150.
[4] Alan Lester, ‘Spatial Concepts and the Historical Geographies of British Colonialism’, in Writing Imperial Histories, ed. by Andrew Thompson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p.131.
[5] John MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p.2.
[6] Paul Young, Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.5.
[7] Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century (New York: New Press, 2011), p.11.