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Selling Empire: Exhibitions

Updated Thursday 17th January 2013

Trace how Empire changed from being a bit-player in the 1851 Great Exhibition, to the main focus of the 1924-5 Wembley Empire Exhibition.

 How far was British culture ‘imperial’? 

Some authors point to the overwhelming number of books, articles, advertisements, songs, imperialistic school textbooks and cigarette cards, and argue that by the late nineteenth century British culture was saturated with imperialism. But Porter’s 'The Absent-Minded Imperialists' (2004) counters that for many newspapers and journals, references to Empire were outweighed by references to non-Empire countries. Empire only seems to loom large if you selectively filter imperial references from their context. Was the very need for the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) to market Empire, a sign that most people did not, before the 1920s, ‘think Empire’ when buying? There are, therefore, questions about which groups (the military, missionaries, the public school using middle classes, and families of emigrants) were Empire enthusiasts, and which (including some unions) were critical of, or largely ignorant about, Empire.  

Egyptian Court Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: National Media Museum/SSPL 'Egyptian Court' North Transept of the Crystal Palace', from Matthew Digby Wyatt's 'Views of the Crystal Palace and Park'

This poster shows exhibits, first displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, that did showcase Empire, but gave even more space to the UK and foreign countries. Egypt did not see British intervention until 1882. The image is from Matthew Digby Wyatt’s ‘Views of the Crystal Palace and Park’, showing the Egyptian Court in the Crystal Palace after it was reconstructed at Sydenham in south-east London, in 1854. 

Exhibitions as barometers of Empire feeling 

We can also confuse a preoccupation with Britain’s global position with concern for Empire. For many people, the Empire was just one aspect of Britain’s global power and its position as a hub for global trade and services. We can see how this worked with the massively popular exhibitions held in London between 1851 and 1925. 

The Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace showed Empire products alongside equally prominent British, European and foreign displays. It was not until 1886 that Empire clearly took centre-stage in an exhibition. 
Crystal Palace Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Library of Congress 'Festival of Empire'

By the 1911 Festival of Empire, Empire had become the main spectacle. In 1911, you could view colonial produce arranged in scale models of the Dominions’ Houses of Parliaments (as in the postcard shown here), as well as in a Malay village, and an Indian ‘jungle’ with animals running free. You could even take an ‘All Red’ Empire train between them, and past an ‘Indian tea plantation’. The map below shows this red route, and the Festival layout in general. It seems as if Britain was looking more to Empire as its manufacturing lead eroded and its naval pre-eminence ebbed away. Hence Empire’s centrality peaked in the Wembley Empire Exhibition of 1924–5. 

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Image supplied by Sydenham Town Forum 'Festival of Empire and Imperial Exhibition 1911 held at the Crystal Palace'; image supplied by Sydenham Town Forum

A staggering 27 million visitors attended. You could walk round a street of Chinese shops (representing Hong Kong), or a white-walled Arab building (for East Africa). The Australian pavilion sold tons of apples, and Canada’s featured a life-size, refrigerated butter sculpture of the Prince of Wales and his horse in 1924, and one of him in the dress of a Native American Chief in 1925.

With the majority of emigrants now going to Empire countries – not the United States as in the nineteenth century – the 1920-30s was, perhaps, the heyday of the British Empire. It was certainly the peak of the ‘idea’ of Empire as something valuable, coherent, vast, and able to support British world power at a time when it was under threat.  

Which British Empire? 

The later exhibitions in effect provided 3-D ‘maps’, or Empire as virtual reality, in which you could appear to wander around the buildings of the Empire. But this raises an additional question: which British Empire were you walking round? Which British Empire do you see if you look at maps produced between 1884 and the 1930s? 

The exhibitions people visited then, and the maps of Empire we tend to see now, are overwhelmingly those of the post-1884 British Empire, which really did bestride much of the globe. Yet a map of Empire before 1850 would show little British presence in Africa, bar the southern tip and some coastal enclaves. 

A map of Empire for 1750 would show only a handful of colonial possessions, and an empire that was more maritime than territorial in nature. There would be virtually nothing in Africa, and nothing at all in Australia. Even in India, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta would appear as specks clinging to the edge of the sub-continent. Instead, the main focus would be on the ‘Atlantic World’ of the American colonies, Caribbean and West African coast: a world underpinned by slaves working on plantations. Half a dozen empires, including those of the Mughals, China, Spain and even Portugal, then outstripped the British Empire. In short, the map of the British Empire most people carry in their head represents only the last 80 years or so of its existence. 


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