Memories of the Future by Katharine Vann
This article was originally published on visit1862.com in February 2016.
The fourth research post by RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).
In preparation for the collaborative exhibition undertaken by the RCA in December, the History of Design students conducted research into various aspects of the 1862 Exhibition to help generate exhibition ideas.
My research initially focused on the various sociopolitical contexts that shaped both the inception and reception of the 1862 Exhibition. Instead of focusing on the innumerable contextual forces that led to the exhibition being neglected by history, for this post I thought it would be more interesting to discuss how interconnections between geographic contexts were materially and imaginatively conceived.
The fact that the 1862 International Exhibition has been judged as a failure does not mean that it lost its ability to capture the imaginations of it’s contemporaries. In August 1861 Robert Bowley, the General Manager of Crystal Palace, wrote a short treatise outlining in moral terms the need for the 1862 Exhibition’s administration to geographically connect outlying cities to the exhibition site in South Kensington. He argued that more railway links between cities in the UK would help the exhibition fulfil its main goal of showcasing international technologies to the working classes. He stressed;
‘It is to show that the country which exercises the highest intelligence and the greatest industry in the conversion of the raw materials which nature so lavishly provides for the use of all, will be most successful in the industrial race’.
Bowley’s treatise speaks about the potential that the reorganization of geographic space had for shaping a truly international exhibition. The concerns of Bowley and his contemporaries should not be overlooked as they indicate that the 1862 Exhibition was an arena where international relations were hugely influential from the exhibition’s inception. Historian John Davis attested to this where he noted that the layout of the exhibition was originally meant to be a classification system of technologies and industries rather than being based around countries and territories. Further, whereas the 1851 Exhibition was predominantly about sales, Davis argues that in the organization, planning and execution of the 1862 Exhibition it was taken for granted that it would attract international audiences.
In the exhibition, the Austrian and Prussian stands were divided by the Western Dome. This schism between Austria and Prussia needs explaining as it speaks of the greater political and contextual concerns that contributed to generating Bowley’s global ‘industrial race’.
1862 was a hugely significant year for global politics. On Saturday 3 May 1862, two days after the opening of the exhibition, The Illustrated London News ran a spread that linked global tensions directly with the exhibition’s organization. It suggested that a great error of 1851 was that it took for granted ‘universal brotherhood’ between nations, forgetting that ‘War will not be put down by any amount of skill in making pruning-hooks’. In short, this article implied that the 1851 Exhibition did not prevent the Wars that came, nor did it solve social strife; ‘man’s mental, moral and spiritual necessities are not to be satisfied by material wealth’. The 1862 Exhibition was conceived as capable of buffering tensions between nations rather than simply being a vehicle for commercialism.
By 1862 the organisers of the exhibition saw continuing conflict in America and the war in Italy had delayed the Exhibition by a year. Furthermore, 1862 was a crucial year for Germany as it coincided with resurgent nationalism, or the New Era. Alongside growing French power, there were tensions between Austria and Prussia over the organization of the 39 German States. The Prussian-dominated Zollverein, or Customs Union, became a vehicle for Prussia to lead a promotional industrial policy. The physical layout of the exhibition became a site where these conflicts were played out. 2,121 exhibitors came from the Prussian Customs Union with 1,413 from Austria. In opposition, the material displays of exhibitors in the Austrian and Prussian Courts reinstated the divide between the two geopolitical entities.
As in 1851, the 1862 Exhibition produced material effect overseas. Germany was among the nations who sent commissioners to produce detailed reports on the exhibition. It was also discussed in popular newspapers where for instance, Lothar Bucher produced a series of articles for the National Zeitung. In Pictures from Abroad, he noted that although the Exhibition claimed to represent the world, many of the products exhibited by the colonies were sent by merchants and diplomats rather than by indigenous peoples, thus making the Exhibition not as global as one might think. Bucher’s discussion highlights both envy and disgust towards British industry and the outputs of their colonial territories in India.
Bucher is useful for showing that Germany secured preeminence in reporting on the Exhibition. Despite being perceived by some as a flop, we cannot ignore the material channels of communication that transnationally transmitted knowledge about the 1862 Exhibition to overseas territories. Instead of seeing the 1862 International Exhibition as a failure, reports written about the event show that the transmission of knowledge over geographic territories identified processes such as the Bessemer process and the manufacture of steel to audiences in Germany.
Although less remembered than its 1851 counterpart, the 1862 Exhibition can help us think through how concepts such as geographic connectivity and the ‘industrial race’ were crystallised context of the Exhibition space.
Visit1862.com in an online space dedicated to collaborative research into the 1862 International Exhibition. Established and edited by Helen Cresswell and Ruth Slatter, visit1862 is one project associated with the Figure 9 Collective that engages with design history beyond the academy.