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Overall, the work contains a great deal that is of value in terms of research on the Great Exhibition, and also provides a fascinating read for the general reader. Auerbach has provided more detail than perhaps any other writer so far on the public discourse in relation to the Exhibition's organisation and its reception. The central thesis, that the Exhibition provided an opportunity for the British to discuss themselves, and to air views on moral, social and political questions, with the result that there was some overall integrative effect, is useful and thought-provoking. It carries forward with detailed literary and cultural research ideas raised by Walter Benjamin, Utz Haltern, Ingeborg Cleve and others.

The Great Exhibition of 1851, In Our Time - BBC Radio 4

The park at Sydenham is still known as Crystal Palace, and there are still reminders of the great building, including the dinosaurs on an island in the ornamental lake.


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Stand beneath the incredible World War One artifacts and marvel at the grandeur of this world-class exhibition.

The result of this situation was a display with a variety of purposes and often containing discordant themes. Hence, the Exhibition could incorporate elements of patriotism and even bigotry while trumpeting the value of internationalism and universal peace. The original intentions of the close circle round Prince Albert were overlaid by those involved in the Exhibition's wider organisation. Further interpretations were offered by press and public, and were not rejected but instead tolerated and even courted by the Royal Commission. As Auerbach concludes, the meaning of the Great Exhibition can not be reduced to one explanation alone. Another result was the popularity of the Exhibition: while observers disagreed with each other, the compromises of the Royal Commission ensured that people talked about it. Negative reactions were also valuable in rooting the Exhibition in the national consciousness.


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The Great Exhibition made a vast profit, and this was invested in land at South Kensington, on which the fine museums that still exist today were built.

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In this respect, Auerbach's book is helpful. Rather than portraying the Exhibition simplistically as a grand demonstration of national prowess fuelled by vanity, or as a covert imperialist plot, or even as a piece of bourgeois propaganda in the face of grinding poverty, it shows that a whiff of all of these characteristics and also many others surrounded the event in Hyde Park. Faced with the uphill prospect of generating support for the Exhibition - Auerbach counters the notion that it was popular from the start - and funding difficulties, a situation not dissimilar to the Greenwich Dome, the organisers of the Great Exhibition carefully chose to accommodate public concerns and anxieties to a great degree. The original desire of the group at the Society of Arts, which came to include Henry Cole, Charles Wentworth Dilke and John Scott Russell, to raise the standard of design of Britain's industrial produce in an artistic and scientific sense, was soon accompanied by Prime Minister Lord John Russell's concern to celebrate commercial liberalism and Free Trade, the liberal view of the advantages of the British political and social model, the East India Company's conviction of the wealth of the empire in terms of raw materials, the Church's belief in God's benevolence, and so on.

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The heart of Auerbach's argument is that the variety of interpretations put forward and the discussion that took place regarding them was a major event in the formation of a British national identity. A nation, as he puts it, was on display. There were a variety of ways in which the Exhibition provoked further disintegration and partition in British society. For example, Auerbach shows how class-consciousness became more defined as a result of contact at the Exhibition and London's difference from the provinces was revisited during the process of its organisation. Certain sectors of British society were excluded from the discussion - notably the radical working classes and much of Ireland. Protestants and Catholics renewed old antipathies in their critiques of Gothic furniture or their commentaries on differences between southern and northern European exhibits. And, as mentioned, contradictions abounded in the message broadcast from the Crystal Palace in its original setting. However, despite all this, in general, the Exhibition and the discussion surrounding it helped create and disseminate a loosely defined set of values. A consensus of sorts about what was British was the result.