Tag Archives: Great Exhibition

Writing a Transport History of the Great Exhibition III: Transporting Goods

In this series of posts I am writing about my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition that I presented last year at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about, and part II discussed the planning stages of the Exhibition. In this third post, I look at how goods moved across the world into the Crystal Palace.

III. Transporting Goods to the Exhibition

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The Great Exhibition of 1851; see The British Library images

“It seemed as if magic only could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the Earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it thus… ruled and subdued by some invisible influence”

Charlotte Brontë, in a letter of 7th June 1851 to her father, Patrick Brontë

Such were Charlotte Brontë’s words upon entering the Crystal Palace in June 1851, the first of 2 visits that she made during her stay in London that year. Her reflections here capture the extraordinary co-ordination of forces that had come together to produce what another contemporary commentator described as a “monument to consumption” (Nikolas Pevsner, 1851).

While evocative, Brontë’s invocation of “the invisible influence” of supernatural hands belies the very visible presence of activity in the lead-up to the Exhibition; whether in the streets of London or in the pages of the press, objects on the move were recorded with intense fascination in the months and weeks leading up to the Exhibition.*

This started with the international packages, sometimes traced right from the point of origin; in one case, the route of a “monster lump of zinc ore” sent from the USA is followed from the mines, over the mountains to Dover, New Jersey, and then on to the coast to be shipped across the Atlantic (see The Times, 16th January 1851, p. 6).

Much of the sea-transportation was undertaken by the steamer ships that had largely outmoded sailing vessels by this point in the century, and Britain’s global network of steamships came into action: the Peninsular & Oriental company shipped items from Middle East and Mediterranean, the East India Company brought goods from India, and regular services between Britain and many ports across Europe served the continental contributors. Some ships were of especial interest, such as the Feiza Baari, the first Turkish steam-ship to ever visit England. The US frigate St Lawrence was also the subject of much anticipation, and for several months there are reports detailing the choice of ship, its fitting up, and then the awaiting of its eventual arrival on British shores, greeted with much excitement:

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The Times, 14th March 1851, p. 5

While the St Lawrence was of particular interest for the eagerly-awaited American contribution to the Exhibition, the attention given here to the packages it contains is not unusual. In the months leading up to the opening, the pages of The Times are filled with numerous such reports recording each arrival at the British docks with meticulous detailing of the number, and often the contents, of packages brought by each ship. As the weeks progress, this turns into something of a growing fixation at the numbers of goods received and the number still to arrive, as in this table from 22nd April 1851 recording the “return of foreign and colonial goods received to April 19 (inclusive):

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The Times, 22nd April 1851, p. 3

 

Such figures are accompanied by frequent expressions of anxiety at the unknown quantities of goods still to be received, and concerns about scant intelligence from some countries: in February The Times writes, “the Executive Committee remain in profound ignorance as to what they may expect from most of the foreign countries” (The Times, 13th February 1851, p. 5) and this anxiety increases as 1st May approaches. Such concerns are a reminder that while it is easy to emphasise the global connectedness that the Exhibition depended upon, it also brought to the fore the realities of disconnection and the persistence of gaps in the networked world.

International goods arrived into either the London Docks, or to other ports such as Southampton (as in the case of the St Lawrence, above), which were connected to London by rail; many of Britain’s contributions also arrived on the railways (hence the importance of the Exhibition’s proximity to mainline stations, as outlined in this previous post). Upon arrival into the city, packages then made their way to the Crystal Palace by road.

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“The Shilling Day: Going to the Exhibition”, Illustrated London News, 19th July 1851, p. 100

Road-congestion around Hyde Park had been the subject of much discussion in the planning stages, but as the Exhibition approached this turned from concern to a source of wonder. The sight of waggons laden with goods arriving and departing at every hour becomes a spectacle in and of itself, one that The Times comments on frequently, and at length:

“waggons laden with every species of commodity have deposited their burdens in the interior… the string of conveyances in waiting often extended down the Kensington-road as far as the end of Sloane-street. Such a spectacle was probably never witnessed in any thoroughfare of the metropolis before, and passers-by stopped to gaze at that long procession … more wonderful in its character than even the rows of splendid equipages assembled in the adjoining park during the height of the season. On Monday 600 waggon loads were received; yet the whole of this vast consignment was deposited with the utmost regularity, and without any inconvenience to the ordinary traffic of the thoroughfare.”

(The Times, 3rd April 1851, p. 5)

This wonder is not only at the number of things, but also at the movement of things: the  “utmost regularity” by which so many packages are moved with order and precision. This sense of the ceaseless, repeated mass movement of items through the streets is evocative of technologized motion; while the waggons are an old form of pre-industrial transport, the consciousness of the railway age here turns them into the mechanisms of a machine-like motion filling London’s streets.

By May 1st 1851, most of the items for display had arrived in the Exhibition – with a few notable omissions, such as “the contributions of native produce from Western Australia, including the newly discovered woods from Shark’s-bay […] which were delayed by an accident to the vessel they were shipped in” (The Times, 8th May 08, 1851; pg. 6). But while a few late announcements of displays follow, attention now mostly turned to passenger transport which will be the subject of my next post.

*my focus here, as in previous posts, is on The Times; I’m currently working through local and regional newspapers to compare with and complement the London focus.

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Writing a Transport History of the Great Exhibition II: Planning the Exhibition

In this series of posts I am writing up some of my initial work on the transport history of the Great Exhibition, on which I recently presented at a workshop of the York Transport Historians. In the first post I wrote about how this project came about and gave an overview of the shape of the research as it currently stands. In this piece, I start by exploring the planning stages of the Exhibition.

II. Planning the Exhibition

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Tallis’s Railway Map of Great Britain, 1851

Transport networks were crucial from the early planning stages of the Exhibition in the late 1840s. A network of committee members travelled around the country to garner support for the Exhibition, making use of the railways to do so, and Joseph Paxton noted that his first meeting with Robert Stephenson about the design of the Crystal Palace was a chance encounter on the railway.

As the international remit of the Exhibition became certain a global network of representatives came into effect, operating mostly via postal correspondence – the speed of which was facilitated by quickening times of steamers. In fact Henry Cole, in his lecture “On the International Results of the Exhibition of 1851”, anticipated that one of the first legacies of the Exhibition would be the formation of a global Postal Association which would create a standardised, uniform system of postal rates, much like that effected by Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform, across the world.

Back in London the first planning decisions centred upon where the Exhibition would be located. Hyde Park was one of just several possible options, with sites at King’s Cross, the Isle of Dogs, and Battersea fields among others proposed:

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Some of the proposed locations for the Exhibition (marked in yellow), and London railway termini (red), using Cross’s 1851 London Guide produced for the Exhibition

Transport was central to discussions about the site: access was vital not only for the large number of visitors anticipated, but more importantly for the delivery of objects. Proximity to railway termini was one factor: as can be seen from the map, despite the growing national scale of the railway network the number of termini in the city was still relatively limited in 1851. King’s Cross offered an ideal site given that the railway station connected with the north and west of England, from where the majority of UK displays would be arriving.¹

Access to water was equally, if not, more important though: a far greater number of goods would be arriving from overseas. Transporting a large number of items overland from the docks by waggon, on the scale required, would be costly, time-consuming, and potentially disruptive to the city’s road network. Battersea fields and the Isle of Dogs had the advantage of proximity to the river, removing the need for overland journeys – ships would be able to sail straight up-river, or send on smaller loads by boat.

Hyde Park had neither the advantage of rail nor water access:

“There are no means of access, either by water or by railway, to Hyde-Park. This is so serious an objection that were there none other forthcoming it should be decisive upon the subject. The cost of transporting the materials and of removing them, the expense of conveying the bulkier objects that are to be exhibited to the repository, must of necessity be vastly increased in amount in consequence of the selection of Hyde-park as the site of the intended Exhibition.”

(The Times, 2nd July 1850, p. 5)

It is almost surprising that Hyde Park was the final choice, given how much surrounding discussion focused on the significance of transport networks. What Hyde Park did offer, however, was the benefit of centrality for visitors, removing the need for lengthy cross-city journeys for those who would already have travelled into London. But its river and rail connections did continue to be a feature throughout the ensuing preparations, a theme I’ll come back to in a later post.

Transport preparations were also coming into effect around the country: repairs to railway lines were pushed forward, and a new locomotive series built. This wasn’t limited to Britain: plans were underfoot to ensure the smooth passage of Austria’s contribution:

“A committee has been formed, under the auspices of Government, for taking into consideration the best means of worthily representing Austria at the great exhibition of manufacturers &c., in London. 10,000l. has been granted by the Minister of Commerce for the construction of roads in Croatia and Sclavonia, and it is proposed to construct a railroad between the Banat and the sea coast.”

(The Times, 25th March 1850, p. 3)

While Spain and America announced early on that there would be free passage for exhibitors:

“Spain had offered large rewards and free passages for the articles of exhibition. The Governor of New York would represent the American people, and free passage would be given for objects intended for the exhibition.”

(The Times, 3rd May 1850, p. 3)

The precursor to the Exhibition, then, was a climate of discussion about transport, both nationally and internationally. There is a sense, in these early months, that Britain begins to realise the capabilities of the networks it has created, and to recognise the Exhibition as the moment in which they will come to fruition. As one poem of 1851 reflects,

“The Prince conceiv’d his giant scheme,

Invok’d he then the aid of steam,

And all the energies of man,

To realise his glorious plan.”

The Crystal Hive; or, the first of May, 1851, Charlotte Theresa Wheler (London, 1852)

This paved the way for the transport of exhibits, the subject of my next post.

_____

¹ The King’s Cross Station building that stands today wasn’t completed until 1852, but a temporary passenger station at the end of the Great Northern Railway line was open from 1850.

Writing a transport history of the Great Exhibition I: introductory thoughts

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“London in 1851”, by George Cruikshank; first published in Henry Mayhew, 1851: or the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys (London, 1851)

On Wednesday I spent an excellent day at the York Transport Historians workshop “Making the Connections: Transport and its Place in History“. It was a very fruitful day of interesting papers and discussion on everything from canals to Concorde, and every mode of transport in between. I was pleased to get the opportunity to present on some research that I’ve been carrying out on a transport history of the Great Exhibition.

This work emerged from an older paper on Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys. The paper is on the mobility of material culture, something that Mayhew’s novel quite wonderfully depicts in a succession of comic (often absurdly so) instances. I was writing a footnote, when I found myself needing to cite a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition – something that told me the what, when and where of exactly how 6 million people and 100,000 objects moved across Britain and the world to the doors of the Crystal Palace. As I researched it, I realised that the work I needed to cite was one that needed to be written, and so this paper was born.

It would, of course, be remiss to state that no work on Exhibition transport exists. The symbiotic relationship between the Great Exhibition and the transport revolution has long been acknowledged: to Victorian commentators the Exhibition was the “natural result” of steam technology, a spontaneous outburst of the age of steam:

“The German journals are quite captivated by the idea of the great exhibition […] They regard it as a great step in the progress of different countries towards cosmopolitanism, and treat it as a natural result of the development of railways, steam communication, the electric telegraph…”

(The Times, 31st October 1849, p. 6)

This has become something of a critical commonplace; but little dedicated attention has been given to detailing a comprehensive transport history of the Great Exhibition. Of course the notable exception is railway passenger travel, studies of which have abounded and become a familiar part of the broader narrative of railway history. But the railways have been studied largely in isolation from the many other modes of transport that were fundamental to passenger travel – steamboats, sail ships, carriages, omnibuses, cabs and pedestrianism. Consideration of the movement of objects to the Crystal Palace has also been a theme in discussions of the emergence of commodity culture, global commodity flows, and the international politics of the Exhibition. Less has been studied, though, of the practical logistics of how things actually travelled from, say, a mine in upstate New Jersey to the doors of the Crystal Palace.

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The Times,  Thursday January 16th, 1851, p. 6; image from The Times Digital Archive 1785-2010 at Gale Cengage Learning

This work started, then, as an enquiry that seeks to create an account that is detailed and nuanced in its understanding of Exhibition mobilities, while working towards an expansive grasp of the range of these journeys. In doing so, I want to both account for the (often fascinating) practicalities of Exhibition transport, and better understand the relationship between the Great Exhibition and the mobile culture of mid-Victorian Britain. By the end of the Exhibition, The Times posed a retrospective question:

“one of the most wonderful facts of the Exhibition is the mode in which its visitors came to it. How did they all get there?”

(The Times, 20th October 1851, p. 4)

It is this question that I seek to answer, as well as to reflect upon the interests, motivations, and cultural contexts that lay behind it.

In the paper I presented yesterday, I traced a brief overview of this work: from the planning and preparation discussions in which transport was a crucial factor in decisions about the location and scope of the Exhibition, through to reflections on the Exhibition’s outcomes in which bold statements about a new mobile culture could be made – “a new phase in the history of the world”, as one piece in The Times put it (Wednesday, June 11th, 1851, pg. 4). I followed the movements of objects as they travelled over land, sea, and across London to reach the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, and then explored the many and varied ways in which people journeyed to the Exhibition by ship, horse-drawn transport, and even on foot.

My sources thus far have been a  variety of cultural documents: novels such as Henry Mayhew’s 1851, as well as poems, plays, diaries, and religious tracts. My focus in yesterday’s paper was the research that has occupied me recently, a survey of 1209 newspaper reports published in The Times from 1st January 1849 to 31st December 1851. The Times survey – while making no claims to comprehensive breadth – has provided a useful lens through which to construct a ground-narrative of Exhibition history as it unfolded across the period. In foregrounding chronology, it has allowed me to perceive the nuanced ebbs and flows in attitudes towards different forms of mobility across the period: to realise, for example, that attention to (and celebration of) the railways comes relatively late in the Exhibition period, and that attention to shipping forms a vast and, to my knowledge, largely unexplored history of the period.

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SS Baltic, built in 1850 for transatlantic service with the American Collins Line; N. Currier, 1851, U.S. Library of Congress

As this starts to make clear, the focus and tone of newspapers reportage also helps us to think about how the Victorians produced and consumed knowledge about transport technologies. What has become most apparent to me through this is the extent to which, I argue, the Exhibition represents the moment when modern mobility became acutely visible to the Victorians for the first time: while the networks that it relied upon had been growing for years, the Exhibition stimulated a rapidly emerging consciousness, accompanied by a great sense of excitement, at what it meant to be living in a newly mobile age. While this is easily equated with  “Exhibition fever” as a whole, there is a particular narrative of mobility within this that was important in Britain’s thinking about itself as a nation on the move, and as interested in understanding and, crucially, in charting its own transport history as it was unfolding in the present moment.

In a series of blog posts to follow I will post some of the initial thoughts and findings from this research.

A new Crystal Palace?

It’s a couple of months now since the first press release announcing plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace. My initial response was amazement that it may be possible in coming years to see the rebuilding of one of the most important buildings of the nineteenth century; but as further details unfurl I, like many others, am increasingly ambivalent about the project, which would see a £500 million investment by a private Chinese corporation into the building and surrounding parkland. While the regeneration of the park seems long-overdue and supported by the local community, the corporation currently have an exclusivity agreement with the local council that prevents other proposals for the site’s development to be submitted until February 2015; during this time there is a call for the community to express their feedback on the scheme but it seems this has come rather late in discussions and from what I’ve read of the news articles, local people are unconvinced that this is the right sort of investment for the park. I’m not familiar with the area to comment further on the local impact of the project, but have been wondering from a Victorianist’s perspective what would be the value in rebuilding the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 - 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)
Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 – 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)

It’s easy to say that the Crystal Palace was one of the most iconic building of the Victorian age, but its history is much more complicated and complex than that: its a story of two phases, and the symbolic meaning of the building changed over the years. In its first incarnation, the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations: the first international Exhibition of its kind, showcasing over 100,000 objects from all over the world. The Exhibition organising committee ran a public call for proposals for the design of the building, and after many unsuccessful suggestions it was Joseph Paxton’s design that caught the imagination of the organisers. Paxton had long been designing specialist greenhouses made from glass and iron for the large collection of exotic plants at the Chatsworth estate (including the famous giant Victoria Regia water lily). His design for the Exhibition space replicated the basic principles of these glasshouses, but at 562m long, 124m wide, and with an interior height of 39m, the building was by far the largest structure of its kind, and required sheets of glass bigger than any produced before. It was a piece in Punch that saw the building christened “the Crystal Palace”, a name that captured the semi-mythical, iconic status of the new building.

"The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations" by George Cruikshank, 1851
“The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations” by George Cruikshank, 1851

The Crystal Palace inspired mixed responses, ranging from hyperbolic praise at the wonder of its design, to ridicule that it was simply a very large greenhouse. So too was it site of contestation: as one Household Words article points out, not so far away from the great building lay “our over-crowded burial grounds, generating a poisonous atmosphere in the thick of the living and loathing people! There, runs the polluted Thames, of which we are compelled to drink!” (Richard Horne, 22/03/1851). Once filled with the exhibits, the wonder of its design was that although the structure was such a spectacle in and of itself, it receded into the background as a translucent space in which the objects on display could take centre-stage – as the colourful “Watercolours of the Great Exhibition” nicely demonstrate.

'View in the West Nave' by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851 (V&A Museum)
‘View in the West Nave’ by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851
Crystal Palace Sydenham - photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte
Crystal Palace Sydenham – photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte

But it is arguably in the second phase of the Palace’s life that the strongest ideological meanings became invested in the building itself; the wealth of objects on display at the Exhibition overwhelmed visitors and ultimately preside most strongly in accounts of the Exhibition), but devoid of these things the Crystal Palace was both more open to interpretation, and open to retrospective investment as a symbol of a past era. After the closure of the Exhibition in October 1851, it was decided that the Palace should be rebuilt at Sydenham and, from its construction in 1854, it remained there until 1936. But while retaining the original features of Paxton’s design, this was an altogether different building: shorter in length, but with a much greater footprint (nearly 100 acres more) and rising to six stories (from the initial three), resulting in a much larger capacity than its first incarnation. Just from looking at pictures, it is clearly a much more commanding, overpowering presence as a structure, and I think this is crucial to the way in which the Palace (and, by association, the Great Exhibition) retrospectively became symbolic of a golden age of British imperial superiority to a much greater extent than in its original incarnation at the time of the Exhibition. The new Palace was put to a range of uses as a leisure space, hosting many concerts, events, exhibitions, and surrounded by 200 acres of park land used for recreation and sport. In 1936, the building was destroyed by a fire but the park has remained, and over the years there have been many suggestions for rebuilding or otherwise restoring the site of the Palace.

So what would be gained by rebuilding the Crystal Palace today? I suppose my initial fascination with the idea stems from an inability to quite grasp the scale and size of the building (both the original, and the redesigned version), and particularly the effect of being inside such a large glass structure. To be able to see and experience that wouldn’t be able to recapture the Victorian experience of the building in any real way, but it would provide an interesting exercise in accompanying the interpretation of accounts from the period. Perhaps more indicatively, it would represent a very interesting contribution to a contemporary neo-Victorian landscape which is marked by a fascination with the buildings and places of the past as sites of meaning, and I’m intrigued as to how a rebuilt Palace would play into both public perceptions and contemporary critical responses on these themes.

Because if there’s one thing that’s noticeable about the design (see the brochure download), it’s that the proposed building is evocative of a neo-Victorian aesthetic that befits the contemporary landscape, rather than standing as a monument to the past. While in images of Paxton’s design the iron bars of the structure are heavily visible, the design foregrounding the contrast between glass and iron, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, in the new design this is gone or at least downplayed in the overall visual effect: transparency, light, airiness are the themes of this structure, emphatically a reinterpretation rather than a straightforward homage to the Victorians. At the same time, heritage looms large over the project: “The park will be restored in line with the approved masterplan to create a modern 21st century park of national importance which reflects Joseph Paxton’s original ideas and responds to the needs and aspirations of local residents” (p. 5). It’s a rather empty statement however, with no explanation of what is understood by “Paxton’s original ideas”, and the talk of “originality” is further interesting given the Palace’s two design formulations – the new building uses the second design, not the true original from Hyde Park.

This reinterpretation is also interesting in that it demonstrates the global afterlives of Victorian Britian’s national heritage. The plans have come from the Chinese ZhongRong Group, and in the opening statement Mr Ni states that “the former Crystal Palace is celebrated in China as a building of great achievement. Its ingenuity and scale is magnificent and this project is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring it back to life […] I have admired the Crystal Palace for many years and am passionate about this project. The Palace’s story is fascinating and I am hoping to add the next chapter by providing a gift to London and the world” (p. 3). It’s a telling statement about the ongoing resonances of the Victorian period and the dis- or re-location of national culture into international contexts, and to see that re-located back into Britain would bring interesting opportunities to analyse these currents further.

As the project gets underway it will be interesting to see how these themes develop; I’m not, from what I’ve heard so far, in favour of the project and hope that the local concerns around it are taken seriously. Insofar as the potential for discussion around the Victorians and their neo-Victorian afterlives goes, though, the project raises some indicative questions and I’d be intrigued to hear more about what other Victorianists make of the proposals as they unfold.

New review: Flower of Empire, Tatiana Holway

The Victoria regia

The new issue of Open Letters Monthly is out today, and in among a host of exciting arts and literary reviews you’ll find a piece by me on Tatiana Holway’s The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created. This intriguing new study explores the history of the Victoria regia water lily that became an evocative symbol of the Victorian era, and Holway’s study takes us from the banks of the Amazon in the 1830s to the doors of the Crystal Palace in 1851, with an intriguing history unfolding in between. I very much enjoyed the book and, well, you can read the rest of the review over at OLM!

‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c.1851″; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of “Victorian Things Revisited” (full conference write-up here). My paper “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place, c. 1851” represents a new direction in my work, developing an emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can’t help but recall the central question of Bleak House: “what connexion can there be […] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”

Cruikshank’s images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew’s comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to ‘enjoy themselves’ and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew’s other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it’s the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I’m still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz’s Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects “on the move”, suggesting that pieces of “portable property” become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz’s main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of “reverse portability” is concerned primarily with identifying an “imperial panic” raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there’s a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I’ll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I’ll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there’s the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There’s also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I’ll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I’m entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I’ve still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments – and I’m aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits – but I’m excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.

Dickens and London exhibition @ Museum of London, June 2012

The Museum of London has been celebrating the Dickens bicentenary with an exhibition on the author’s connections with the city. Given the wealth of associations betweeen Dickens and London in his life, works and on-going legacy, this exhibition promised much and it certainly did provide an impressive range of material relating to Dickens and Victorian London. Ultimately, though, I felt this didn’t quite deliver what it could have done.

We began with biography, looking at paintings and photographs of Dickens, his friends and family, before moving into the main part of the exhibition which was organised thematically, commencing with Dickens and the theatre. Playbills, puppets, a model theatre and costumes illuminated Dickens’s lifelong interest in the theatre, and playbooks of theatrical adaptations of Dickens’s works demonstrated the two-way direction of this engagement.

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“Dickens’s Dream”; Robert William Buss, 1870

From there it was on to Dickens and the home, where we were told about Victorian ideals of domesticity and Dickens’s strength of attraction to the idea of the home. The painting Dickens’s Dream was brought to life in an animated film, whilst Dickens’s letters, a selection of household objects, and contemporary paintings provided visual illustration of the ideas being raised. A section on Progress had a particular focus on transport and communication technology – a particular highlight for me was a wonderful selection of photographs showing “the coming of the railway” into city spaces – and we finished with Life and Death, exploring Victorian ideas of mourning and Dickens’s last years.

Throughout, many (if not most) of the artefacts on display were from the Victorian period more generally, rather than specifically related to Dickens, providing a visual exploration of Dickens’s life and times. This wasn’t altogether a bad thing: amongst the objects on display were an ornately carved piano and model railway train that were displayed at the Great Exhibition, pieces of telegraph cable, all of which were rather more interesting than many of the truly “Dickensian” objects – whilst his writing desk made for reasonably interesting viewing, Dickens’s soup ladle did not. The paintings also offered interesting points for discussion and nicely drew out some of the links being made throughout the exhibition. It was also especially valuable to see so many manuscript and proof copies of the novels: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and David Copperfield were among the copies on display, and whilst these were safely stowed behind glass cabinets, plastic-bound replica versions of the periodical issues were available at benches throughout. I particularly enjoyed seeing the performance copies of the texts that Dickens used in the readings he gave in his later years: a copy of Oliver Twist was heavily annotated with Dickens’s performance notes, “Action!”, “Mystery”, “Terror to the end!”

manuscript

Whilst this was all nicely done, I felt that the links between the material on display, and between Dickens and London, could have been much more strongly drawn out. The visual material made for pleasant viewing, and gave a decent enough overview of Victorian life, but it didn’t feel like it particularly added anything to the idea of Dickens and his works; with the exception of the Dickens letters and manuscripts, this could have been any exhibition about Victorian life. Similarly, the connections between Dickens and London felt underexplored; much of this could have been an exhibition about Dickens more generally, and there was little that really explained what this was adding specifically to an understanding of Dickens and London. I felt this all lacked an overarching narrative that really drew out the potential connections of the objects and texts on display, and that used these objects to offer something more to the understanding of Dickens.

I suspect that this lack of narrative arose from a focus on the design of the exhibition space which sought to “recreat[e] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections” so as to take the viewer “on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired his writings.” The dark, dimly-lit space was decorated with big letters, moons and stars hanging from the ceiling, supposedly aiming to replicate the idea that we were going on one of Dickens’s famous night-walks around the city. It was a nice touch but added little to the experience; in so far as it attempted to provide a narrative journey through the exhibits this was definitely a case of style over substance.

The exhibition made for interesting viewing, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed with what the exhibition had achieved, and the sense that it could have been more given the subject at hand. This was rather emphasised when we went on to explore the rest of the Museum of London: it is a rich resource of artefacts from the prehistoric period to the present day, and the eighteenth and nineteenth century collections which I spent most time in present a wealth of material and much more successfully draw together themes, ideas, and narratives. Although the Dickens and London exhibition has now closed, I’d highly recommend a visit to the rest of the museum.