6 April 2018




Hi, Musings readers! This is my penultimate post for the blog (!!!). Reflecting on my MMSt journey and all that I've learned about what museums were, what they are, and where they are going, I wanted to take this final Walk of Fame back to one of the earlier iterations of museums: The Great Exhibition.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was an international exhibition organized by Prince Albert, prince consort of Queen Victoria, and Henry Cole. Their intention was to showcase British imperial prosperity and the might of the Industrial Revolution by exhibiting manufactured goods. Exhibitions comprised the display of raw materials and their manufactured counterparts, which of course included resources and products from overseas. The Great Exhibition was housed in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, built specifically for the event. It took place between May 1st and October 15th, 1851.

Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, from Dickinson's Comprehensive Images of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Source.
At this point you may be wondering, "why are you using your final post to talk about two Victorian white men who created the Great Exhibition?"

In short, I'd like to use the Great Exhibition to explore the colonial origins of museums. How can we respond to these early conventions to operate modern museums that serve their diverse and multicultural communities, especially in a place like Canada? The two individuals below represent members of a hierarchical society that don't necessarily make up the visitor population today, but their work can inform what we do.

Henry Cole
Henry Cole.

An inventor and British civil servant, Henry Cole (1808-1882) sought support for the exhibitions through his involvement with the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA). He was dedicated to improving the standards of industrial design, and ultimately secured Prince Albert's patronage for exhibitions on art manufactures between 1847 and 1849.

After visiting the 11th Quinquennial Paris Exhibition in 1849, Cole aspired to expand the RSA's planned exhibitions for 1850 and 1851 to international participants, so in 1850 he obtained Queen Victoria's backing to establish the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

Cole's dedication to artistic and scientific pursuits led to his creation of what's considered the first commercial Christmas card, in 1843. He was adamant that the Great Exhibition's profits be allocated to the purchase of land for the South Kensington Museum, of which Cole was the first director. Established in 1852, the museum is now the Victoria & Albert Museum, and has a Henry Cole wing.

Prince Albert 

Prince Albert, c. 1848. Source.
Prince Albert (1819-1861)'s role in the Great Exhibition reflects his class in relation to Cole; while Cole and the RSA were the mobilizing force behind the Exhibition, the Prince Consort was enthusiastic in his support of it.

Prince Albert was lauded as the mastermind of the Exhibition, and his vision resulted in the profit of the showcase, bringing in £186,000. It was by Prince Albert's decree that the funds be used to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”, ultimately contributing to the creation of what is now known as the V&A.

Beyond the Royal Family, who visited the Exhibition three times, prominent Britons at the time also made appearances, such as Charles Darwin, Charlotte Brontë, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Though other individuals such as Karl Marx disapproved of the Exhibition for sensationalizing capitalism, six million people visited in total.

What does remembering the Great Exhibition mean for us today?

Countries from the world could exhibit their industrial accomplishments, but the Great Exhibition was primarily intended to prove British superiority. As a colonial engine, therefore, the Exhibition is an example of how museums and their exhibitions can perpetuate a hegemonic agenda.

Nevertheless, we don't have to resign ourselves to this prospect. Rather, we know that through conscious and responsible interpretation we can subvert and overturn these notions of superiority - whether by class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or culture - and aspire to capture empathetic responses to the human experience.

Rather than exhibiting differences in a way that creates hierarchies, we can celebrate those differences and learn from them with a positive vision. That's my hope for the general direction of museums today, and in the future - but as museum professionals we're responsible to go beyond hope and create change through action.

Thank you all for coming on this Walk of Fame with me all term. Going forward, I hope we don't simply dismiss the past as something irrelevant to us, but instead examine it in a way that serves our commitment to progress today.

No comments:

Post a Comment