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New perspectives on the Great Exhibition

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The Great Exhibition of 1851 is widely regarded as a major public event that has provided a common focus for scholars studying diverse aspects of 19th-century history. However, despite an extensive secondary literature the meaning of the Exhibition has proved elusive and research has concentrated on a few disparate areas to the neglect of many others. In gathering material for a recently-published documentary history of the Exhibition I became increasingly aware of the vast range of meanings that contemporaries attributed to it – scientific, technological, social, political, religious, etc. – while historians have added further perspectives. The problem of engaging the Exhibition is compounded by the extensive range of sources that it generated, some of which have been neglected by historians; in particular commentaries in the contemporary periodical literature and the accounts written by visitors. Thus, for example, in contrast to the narratives manufactured by the Exhibition’s organisers, visitors’ accounts show how individuals with different backgrounds and interests navigated the Exhibition. Drawing on a variety of sources this paper will offer some new perspectives on the Exhibition and its significance for the history of the mid-19th century.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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