Exhibitions and Empire

Dr Jeffrey Auerbach (Department of History, California State University at Northridge)

The Great Exhibition of 1851 has become a symbol not only of Britain’s industrial development, but of its burgeoning empire as well. Numerous scholars in recent years have noted the centrality of the Indian exhibits in the Crystal Palace, and emphasized the exhibition’s role in displaying commodities from Britain’s colonies. Yet what may be most remarkable about the exhibition – and even more so about the subsequent London international exhibition of 1862 – was how limited a role the empire played. Not until 1886 would the empire receive priority status at an exhibition, and then only at a ‘Colonial and Indian Exhibition.’ It is possible to trace, therefore, a divergence between exhibitions of British art and manufactures and those of imperial goods between 1886 and 1911, with the 1924 Wembley Empire Exhibition attempting with only partial success to reunite the two strands. Nonetheless, the many exhibitions held in Britain from 1851 to 1924 chart the complex and changing relationship between Britain and its empire.


The empire occupied a relatively small place at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The early discussions of the organizers (see Illustrated London News Vol.18, 1851 (pp623-624)) for brief portraits of the key figures) contain no mention of the empire, and the inclusion of Archibald Galloway, Chairman of the East India Company, on the Royal Commission, was as much an obligatory nod as a reflection of commitment. The three London Mansion House meetings promoting the exhibition made no mention of how the exhibition might boost trade or foster closer ties with the empire.[1] And as for soliciting exhibits and generating enthusiasm for the exhibition, the organizers’ focus was overwhelmingly on the British Isles, and to a lesser extent continental countries. But while the empire as a concept was not necessarily promoted, Britain’s prominent position in a global economy certainly was.