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Exhibitions and Empire

Exhibitions and Empire Lecture

Ryan Johnson

on 14 April 2016

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Transcript of Exhibitions and Empire

Exhibitions and Empire
Aims of Lecture:

Exhibitions and Victorian culture: Crystal Palace.

Major imperial exhibitions: 1886 Indian Colonial Exhibition, 1899 Greater Britain Exhibition, 1924 Empire Exhibtion, Wembly, 1938 Empire Exhibition, Glasgow.

What did these exhibtions display? What was their message?

What can these exhibitions tell us about the empire between 1850 and 1950?
The Great Exhibition: Crystal Palace, 1851
The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was conceived to symbolize the industrial, military and economic superiority of Great Britain (I.R.).

Over 14,000 exhibits were displayed and viewed by over 6,200,000 visitors to the exhibition (made about £20 million in todays money).

All European nations invited in order to show the impact of Britain and the industrial revolution on the world.
However, at the Great Exhibiton, only 520 of the 14,000 exhibitors were colonial.
Great Exhibtion shows the importance of commodities, and that they had taken centre stage in everyday life. The rise of consumerism and advertising.
The exhibits that did focus on the colonies, generally displayed products deriving from them.

Important commodities such as tea, sugar, tobacco.
London Exhibition of 1862: 7,000 Indian exhibits.

Tellingly, 3/4 of the exhibits on the empire were devoted to India; only a 1/4 to the roughly 30 other colonies.

Exhibitions responding to the main economic news of the day.

From 1866 the London Exhibition, and many others, became almost entirely devoted to empire.
Exhibitions were also put on throughout the empire

New Zealand (1865, 1906, 1924); Cape Town (1877); Sydney (1879); Melbourne (1888); Kimberley (1893); Brisbane (1897); Johannesburgh (1936); Calcutta (1883); Bombay (1910); Sierra Leone 91865); Jamaica (1891); Zanzibar (1905).

These exhibitions were celebrations of the successful transplantation of British culture/values and society; celebrated the 'mother country', and a sense of national unity, especially with the dominions.
Before we investigate specific examples, what was the purpose of these imperial exhibitions?
These exhibitions marked supposed (rhetoric) British imperial control expressed through displays of exploration, agriculture, geology, naval and military might, global exploitations of resources.

Also a place to advertise and sell many of the commodities deriving from empire.

All exhibitions framed Britain as a peaceful and civilising superpower.
They also marked the supposed (rhetoric) control of the colonial environment through stuffed animals and other such exhibits.

And the control and pacification of other people and culture through displays of simulated villages.
Colonial and Indian Exhibition 1886
The Colonial and Indian Exhibition was the first of the imperial 'official' exhibitions developed and funded by government support.

5.5 Million visitors.
The stated goal of the exhibition: 'to give the inhabitants of the British Isels...practical demonstration of the wealth and industrial development of the outlaying portions of the British Empire'.

First of the exhibitions with large amounts of ephmera to take home; and booklets on the 'History, Products and Natural Resources' for all of Britain's colonies.
Imre Kiralfy and Imperial Exhibitions
1895 Kiralfy founds London Exhibitions Ltd., which specialises in putting on exhibitions, particularly imperial ones.
His most ambitious effort was the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899: 'A Vivid Representation of Life in the Wilds of the Dark Continent'.

At the 'Kaffir Kraal' there were 174 Africans in four simulated villages, along with live cranes and giant toroises.
These displays and spectacles were powerful applications of social Darwinism to entertainment.

From the Guidebooks: 'Unlike the Indian, the South African native is a restless savage, and he will be seen to be very busy grinding corn, making the native drink'.
They become spectacles. Full of theatre and exotic displays. Such as renactments of battles, and simulated villages. Some of the villages having live animals.
Displays of simulated 'native' villages served an important purpose: to show off the quaint, the savage, the exotic, to offer 'living proof' of the onward march of imperial civilisation.
The ultimate goal: to declare 'barbarism' overwhlemed and that commerce and civilisation had, or would intrude the remotest village.
Guidebook: 'Now take a hasty glance at the interior of this hut on your right, and make a rapid inventory of its contents. That will not be difficult. Inside you will see a bed of straw, nothing more. These primitive people have not yet adopted all the fashions and utensils of the luxurious life'. Franco-British Guide, 1908, p. 2.
Along with such descriptions of Africans and Indians, many of the guidebooks were filled with advertisements for emmigration to the empire.
This was largely to divert huge numbers of Britons that still emmigrated to the United States.

1884 to 1893: 400,000 to Empire compared to 1 million British to the USA.

1904 to 1913: 1.2 million to Empire compared to 600,000 to USA.
The greatest function of the exhibitions was to emphasise the that Empire was an interlocking economic unit to stave off competition from Germany, USA and Russia.
The exhibitons emphasised the need to create a system of imperial preference to maintain Britain's position as a superpower. (Ottawa Conference in 1932 in response to global depression finally formalised, but in large part because of sustained propaganda efforts since the late 19th C.).

Exhibition propaganda for establishing and maintaining a system of imperial preference was most obvious at the influential Empire Exhibition of 1924 at Wembley, London.
Empire Exhibition, 1924
Wembley was the greatest of all the imperial exhibitions, in area, cost, praticipation and impact.

27 million visitors; Empire peagent with over 12,000 performers; concerts with 10,000 singers; 1,000 man marhing band; 'races in resident' displays; its own amusement park; staggering amount of ephmera (tons on Ebay).
Propaganda: 'To find, in the development and utilisation of the raw materials of the Empire, new sources of Imperial wealth. To foster inter-imperial trade and open fresh world markets for Dominion and world products. To make the different races of the British empire better known to each other, and to demonstrate to the people the alomst illimitable possibilities of the Dominions, Colonies and Dependencies overseas'.
Glasgow Exhibition of 1938
'Every walk of life and every part of the human body now seemed to have some kind of commodity mineristing to it'. Richards, Commodity Culture, p. 22.
Developed to deal with the economic depression (plans laid in 1931).

Was a chance for Scotland to showcase its contribtuions to industry and empire.

'...the greatest anywhere in the world since Wembley'.

Like the other exhibitions, it used the same rhetoric and propaganda to promote empire.

However, tellingly, attendance had waned, as did overall interest in empire compared to previous exhibitions.

Nonetheless, it was still hugely popular and influential.

Imperial Exhibitions After WWII
Smaller, more mobile exhibitions, and 'obsessed' with the restoration of imperial trade.

1944 'Touring Colonies Exhibition'.

Prepare the British public for expensive colonial development programmes in Africa after the War; and to continue encouraging the purchase of colonial produce.

1951, 'Focus on Colonial Progress Exhibition'.

Poorly attended, and one of the last imperial exhibitions.

1951, 'Festival of Britain' Exhibition. A refocus on matters at home. 'A tonic for the nation'.

Place this in the context of the end of empire...


Imperial exhibitions brought together both official and commercial efforts to propagandise the benefits of empire: at home and abroad.

Through what they left behind we can understand prominent imperialist ideals and racial attitudes that were disseminated for public consumption.

Able to follow the ebb and flow of popular and political support for empire: 1850-1950.
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