Victorian Visual Culture








Exhibiting Imperialism at the Great Exhibition


The transept of the Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The idea of exhibitions in England began with the Mechanics' Institutes.  They organised an exhibition with large displays of industry and art after the year 1837.  It was a successful event and provoked a chain of similar events across a large number of other towns and cities.  The purpose if these exhibitions was to promote an understanding of industry and render it “less despicable in the eyes of the educated classes, and to provoke debate on the nature of the working class culture.”  (Greenhalgh p.8)   One could say that these kinds of exhibitions were a way of addressing and celebrating the diversity of classes in Britain and allowing the gap between educated and working classes to be bridged.

The Great Exhibition in 1851 was initially intended to be just a national event but in 1850 international countries were invited to participate.  What have been the motivations behind this invitation?   The English had a first class worldwide reputation in terms of industry but there were growing concerns over mounting competition from other countries and so this problem needed to be addressed.

“To invite all nations of the world to take part in ‘the friendly competition’ of an international exhibition was to create a potential for market expansion abroad.  One of the main motives behind the international character of the Great Exhibition of 1851 therefore was economic; Britain wanted more market, and was confident when the foreigner came he would buy British goods.” (Greenhalgh p.10)

The economic motivations behind the invitation of international countries to participate meant that Britain was keen to impress, and the sheer size and scale of the Exhibition in itself helped to attract visitors.  The Crystal Palace occupied nineteen acres of land, 33 million cubic feet and approximately six and a half million people visited the exhibition.  This impressive feat took great motivation.  Contemporary discussions questioned the benefits of the exhibition and queried the potential merits.

India at the Exhibition

Indian court

The Indian Court at the Great Exhibition 1851

What was the motivation behind displays from colonised countries at the Great Exhibition?   By looking specifically at the Indian Court at The Great Exhibition, we can behind to decipher the aims of the exhibition and what this suggests about the nature of imperialism in Britain .

The East India Company, who were the only entity who had trading rights in India at that time were extremely supportive of the exhibition itself and of the Indian Court display.  It would allow an opportunity to display “the riches of Britain ’s empire in the East.” (Purbrick, p.150) The attitude of the exhibitors indicates that although these products were essentially of Indian origin, they were seen as British products.  The display at the Indian Court would be seen as a tribute to Britain and a testament to the achievements of the British Empire in the East.

The Exhibition was opening following a time when the focus of rule in India was shifting from trade to military domination. (Purbrick p.150)  Political questions were being raised regarding the role of the East India Company which then in turn led to a questioning of the merits of Empire.  Therefore it becomes clearer why the East India Company would be keen to support a display like the Indian Court at the Crystal Palace.   They wanted to show the British Public that the links between Britain and India were beneficial.  Historian Paul Greenhalgh states that the East India Company wanted to “glorify and domesticate” the subcontinent.  The Company went on then to assemble “an exhaustive display of raw materials that attested to the financial benefits of Empire,” further emphasising the idea to the British public that imperial presence in India was profitable. (Purbrick p.150)

The Official Catalogue of The Great Exhibition states that India was allocated more space for its display that any other ‘Colony’, ‘Possession’, or ‘Dependency.’  In the light of postcolonial theory and studies of imperialism, how do 21 st Century readers interpret these words?  Can it be interpreted as a generous attempt to represent India or it is empirical, dominating and patronising?   This inevitably leads us to questions regarding the nature of what exactly was displayed and how India was represented.  The Crystal Palace Exhibition was seen as being an almost exact replica of India itself.  French political economist Jerome Adolph Blanqui claimed that the Indian Court was an “encyclopaedic representation” of the actual country.  Blanqui found himself “tantalised by the Indian Collection” and was “compelled to return to gaze at its holdings repeatedly.” (Purbrick p.151)

The Panopticon


Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

In 1785 philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham invented the Panopticon, a type of prison.  It was a design that allowed the observer to look in and watch while the prisoners were unaware that they were being watched.  For the prisoners in a jail following the design of the panopticon there was nowhere to turn and nowhere to escape the gaze of their jailer.

We can use this idea of the panopticon and relate it to this picture of the howdah at the Great Exhibition.  The howdah on the elephant was displayed at the court as an example of how the Indian Raj lived.  Yet the meaning and significance of this can be interpreted further.  This howdah is where one could place the coloniser – somewhere where they can observe and control all that is around them.  It produces connotations of someone in a position of power and influence looking down with authority over their subjects.  Visitors to the Great Exhibition begin to imagine themselves in that same position of watching, gazing and dominating.  This allows us to question the relationship between the observer and the observed and it reflects how people viewed the relationship between Britain and India.  Britain was there to watch over, control and dominate India.

The Koh-i-Noor


The Koh-i-noor Diamond on display at The Great Exhibition

One of the most famous attractions at The Great Exhibition was the Koh-i-noor jewel from India .  At 186 carats, this is one of the largest diamonds in the world and now sits in the crown of the late Queen Mother.  While it was mostly kept in what the Illustrated London News referred to as “a golden cage or prison,” it was occasionally put on open display in its “best dress,” which was a “tent of red cloth.”

This illustration gives us an idea of how the display looked and the reactions to this diamond.  What do we see when we look at this image?  In this picture, we see crowds standing around the diamond, gazing and observing.  This cage has a crown on top, a symbol of control and domination.  This jewel was put on display as a material reminder of what Britain had gained through imperialism.  It was there to emphasise how Britain had succeeded as an Empire by the very fact they could be possession of such a jewel.

The diamond was also described in feminine terms and we could ask how gender roles feed into the construction of Empire and colonies.  Imperialism was often seen as supposedly benevolent and maternal.  The colonisers were viewed as taking care of and nurturing the colony.  Yet the language of Empire is essentially patriarchal and in the Victorian period, it was seen as much more of a masculine endeavour to have a ‘voice.’  This invokes connotations of empowerment and disempowerment.  The discourse of Empire had clearly defined roles and India was given the feminine role, relying on the British to be her ‘voice.’

Exhibition & Imperialism

Area of Indian court

An area of the Indian Court at The Great Exhibition

What can the Great Exhibition tell us generally about British Imperialism?  Firstly, that the representations at the exhibition were constructed.  The displays were carefully organised to show the wealth of benefits Britain’s Empire was attaining.  It was profitable economically for Britain to encourage trade with foreign visitors to the exhibition, but it was also profitable to attract the general British Public who had begun questioning Britain’s occupation in the colonies.  The exhibition also highlighted the idea that colonised countries needed an Empire like Britain in order to reach their full potential.  Only with a country like Britain to respect and revere would each colony see civilization, economy and progress which The Great Exhibition celebrated with such pomp and vigour.

This page was written by Siobhan McErlean


This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.

Email Dr Litvack with your comments: L.Litvack at