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The University of Southampton

HIST3226 The Great Exhibition of 1851 Part 2: Legacy

Module Overview

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was an international exhibition which took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1st May to 11th October 1851. It was arguably the greatest of a series of international ‘expositions’ run throughout the nineteenth century, celebrating scientific and technological innovation, design aesthetic and the might of manufacturing. On show were some 13,000 objects from Britain, the Colonies and forty-four other nations. The Exhibition and the Crystal Palace which housed it became a British icon, symbolising free trade and national success. During its six month opening period, over six million people visited the Exhibition, turning London, in the words of the Illustrated London News, from ‘the capital of a great nation, [into] the metropolis of the world’. The effects of the Exhibition were enormous and felt well into the twentieth century and beyond. But why was the Great Exhibition so important? How did it become a turning point for the nation? And what exactly has its legacy been?

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the aftermath of the Great Exhibition, including the actions of the Royal Commission, alongside current historiographical debates surrounding its immediate impact;
  • the wider context of cultural change, with a focus on the development of education and mass entertainment at a national level;
  • key primary sources and literature, charting the results of the Great Exhibition, how it changed Britain’s approach to national heritage and its ongoing legacy;
  • key objects and products which stemmed from the Exhibition itself which you can use to explore a range of phenomena, including the rise of the heritage industry and the popularity of photography, stereoscopy and film
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • utilise and develop your time-management skills
  • develop and improve your presentation skills
  • participate effectively in group discussion
  • locate and use effective textual, visual and material culture sources in the library and on-line, synthesising this material in order to develop cogent arguments
  • research historical questions and communicate your findings convincingly and concisely in written essays and reports
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • participate fully and constructively in group discussion, arguing your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding
  • analyse critically a variety of textual, visual and material culture sources
  • structure your ideas and research findings into well-ordered presentations and essays
  • understand and contextualise primary source material and express this in essay and examination
  • engage with secondary literature on the impact of the Great Exhibition, contributing to the debates relating to its short and long term legacy


The Royal Commission, established in 1851 to organise the Great Exhibition, is still in existence today, nearly 170 years after the event. Now, it provides funding for research in the fields of science, engineering and industrial design, but immediately following the Exhibition its first task was to put the income generated at the Crystal Palace, some £186,000, to good use. This module will being by exploring the early actions of the Commission, which included the purchase of land to the south of Hyde Park for the establishment of the South Kensington Museum; the foundation of government schools to train new designers, scientists and artists; and the sale of the Exhibition building which, re-erected at Sydenham, subsequently became known as ‘The People’s Palace’ - part zoo, part theatre, part amusement arcade. Tracking the core themes of education and mass entertainment, we will consider the wider impact of the Great Exhibition post-1851, investigating its legacies including the generation of new manufacturing techniques, the production of new commodities and the creation of a heritage industry. Examining the short and long term impact of the Great Exhibition, our sources will include objects on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the ‘Virtual Crystal Palace’ - an attempt to celebrate the legacy of ‘The People’s Palace’ at Sydenham. An indicative list of seminar topics would include • New acquisitions: purchasing for the nation at the Great Exhibition • Foundations: Government Schools of art, design, history and science • The making of the South Kensington Museum 1: dealers and the trade • The making of the South Kensington Museum 2: collecting and curating • Industry: working with the world in the wake of the Great Exhibition • Entertainment for the masses: photography, stereoscopy and film • The weird and the wonderful: the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854 - 1936 • The past in the present: forging Britain's heritage • Virtual impact: the Great Exhibition lives on

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • short presentations by students • group discussions including feedback from the tutor • detailed reading and analysis of the module texts Learning activities include: • preparatory reading, individual research and study prior to each class • preparing and delivering short presentations relating to specific aspects of the module • studying textual and visual primary sources • participation in group and class discussion In this module learning and teaching activities focus on helping you to explore and investigate the ideas and themes outlined above. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. The presentations (by you and your fellow students) and your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated by these presentations will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written and visual sources, as well as surviving material culture. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the essay and examination exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions. Responses from tutor and your fellow students to your presentation will also give you formative feedback.

Completion of assessment task90
Preparation for scheduled sessions90
Wider reading or practice32
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Edensor, Tim (ed.) (2010). Spaces of vernacular creativity: rethinking the cultural economy. 

Bennett, Tony and Patrick Joyce (eds) (2010). Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn. 

Hobhouse, Hermione (2002). The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition : art, science and productive industry : a history of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. 

Sparling, Tobin Andrews (1982). The Great Exhibition: a question of taste. 

Mandler, Peter (2006). Liberty and authority in Victorian Britain. 

Jordanova, Ludmilla (2012). The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice. 

Richards, Thomas (1991). The commodity culture of Victorian England: advertising and spectacle, 1851-1914. 

Gere, Charlotte and Caroline Sargentson (2002). The Making of the South Kensington Museum. Journal of the History of Collections. ,14 .

Buzard, James (2007). Victorian prism: refractions of the Crystal Palace. 

Miller, Daniel (2008). The Comfort of Things. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 50%
Exam  (3 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Linked modules



Costs associated with this module

Students are responsible for meeting the cost of essential textbooks, and of producing such essays, assignments, laboratory reports and dissertations as are required to fulfil the academic requirements for each programme of study.

In addition to this, students registered for this module typically also have to pay for:

Field Trips

The module incorporates one field trip, a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London to explore the objects purchased for the nation by the Royal Commission at the close of the Great Exhibition. As this is an essential part of the learning experience, the costs will be paid for by the department rather than the students. Based on current prices, indicative costs are: c. 20 (number of students) x £56 (off-peak day return rail ticket to London, with tube travel to South Kensington) = £1120.00

Please also ensure you read the section on additional costs in the University’s Fees, Charges and Expenses Regulations in the University Calendar available at

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