Report on ‘“The device of bringing them all together”: international and imperial exhibitions, 1851-1924

On 22 June 2012, the inaugural AHRC-funded workshop in the ICE Research Network series was held at the Tate Britain. The event provided a dynamic forum for academics, archivists and curators to discuss the interwoven aesthetic and political discourses inherent to international and imperial exhibitions from 1851 to 1924. The opening session focused on ‘ “Centres”, “margins” and the international networks of exhibitions’ and showcased new research on the history of exhibitions and their larger cultural impact in India, Central Europe and Britain. In his paper ‘Thinking through imperial debris: The Great Exhibition of 1851 and its after-effect in India,’ Daniel Rycroft (University of East Anglia) used the example of the Santal to discuss the emergence of a social relationship between Empire and colonised peoples in the wake of the Great Exhibition, which resulted ultimately in a sense of racial cosmopolitanism that made all imperial subjects peripheral. Marta Filipová  (University of Wolverhampton) looked at ‘Great exhibitions in the margins’, and presented case studies of international exhibitions in Wolverhampton, Prague and Brno. A variety of exhibitions in each of these cities were all founded on displays of strong local identities, and demonstrated that the exhibition became the tool with which regionalism and internationalism could be welded.  Bryony Dixon (British Film Institute) screened selections of ‘International exhibitions on film’, among them the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition and the 1911 Festival of Empire. These film fragments illuminated the increasingly multimedia role of international and imperial exhibitions in the early twentieth century, relaying a highly personalised experience of such events and their key position in the history of popular entertainment.The papers in the afternoon session treated ‘Material and artistic encounters at the expositions universelles’, and thus concentrated on Anglo-French encounters and the modern exhibition industry. Jasmine Allen (University of York) opened with her presentation on ‘ “A Happy Union”: Visualising Anglo-French relations in stained glass at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855.’ By analysing the medium of stained glass and arguing that international exhibitions fulfilled the same role as the medieval tournament, she revealed the political alliances that often took on both a decorative shape and social function as prominent display pieces in international exhibitions. Continuing with an examination of the burgeoning trend in Arts and Crafts, Rachel Sloan (Courtauld Gallery) discussed ‘ “A strange and striking poetry”: the discovery of Burne-Jones and Watts at the 1878 Exposition Universelle.’ The exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites in Paris offered a new view of modernity and aesthetic traditions that gave the movement and hence Britain a redefined profile in the international sphere. Building on this popular reception of the fine arts, Katie Faulkner (Courtauld) concluded the session with her talk on ‘ “A house of yesterday, not of today”: British art at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle’, which engaged critically with the display of British architecture, painting and sculpture in the context of international modernism. The day ended with a keynote by Paul Greenhalgh (Director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia), which articulated the politics of international and imperial exhibitions as ‘Promises and Threats: The Exhibition Industry 1890-1914.’ By stressing the economic focus of such exhibitions, particularly as manifested through Art Nouveau decorative arts and design, an ideology of progress emerged that was inseparable from state power and the race for international domination. Ultimately the exhibition became a loyaliser through a series of intimidation strategies, both political and aesthetic, and always inseparable from the production and presence of the objects on display.

 Dr. Sabrina Rahman
Leverhulme Trust Visiting Fellow
School of Advanced Study
University of London

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