nineteenth century phenomenon of the International Exhibition has ancient origins and
venerable precedents, both sacred and secular. Three main sources influenced the
international Exhibitions beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal
Palace, London: the culture of the ancient fairs and markets of England and Europe,
national exhibitions in France from 1798, and the early nineteenth-century activities of
mechanics' institutes and artisans' schools of design in England's industrial north.Though fairs and markets often overlap, the terms have separate and
distinct etymologies - as defined by the French historian, M. Tamir.1) Whereas
market (possibly of Etruscan origin) has always had purely mercenary and
commercial connotations, fair derives from another old Indo-European root by
way of the Latin feriae, meaning those holidays set aside for honouring the
gods, when work is suspended (sometimes for ritual reasons) and special ceremonies are
observed. The difference is crucial: the fair proper has always been a separate, special
or ceremonial occasion, often having sacred origins or associations and other
non-commercial attractions which distinguish it from the mundane market. The
celebratory role of the fair, which is confirmed by the etymological connection with
feast, festival, fête, festoon etc.2) , remains essential
to the character of the International Exhibition.
The institution of the fair can be
traced back to the Phonecians.3) Indian scholars can trace their ritual fairs back to the third
millennium BC and there may have been even more remote precedents in Palaeolithic culture.
Fairs also arose in the Orient, where they are still part of the religious calendar.4) There were fairs in
ancient Greece and Rome 5) and in pre-Norman Britain. They declined in the Dark Ages and
revived with the renaissance of the eleventh century to spread all over Europe again,
often becoming associated with saints' days and religious charities. Some were run by and
for the benefit of the Church. Alfred the Great is said to have introduced annual fairs in
England during the ninth century; by then many sites had developed as sites of commercial
transaction. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries numerous fairs were established
in Europe and many were created in England by Royal Charter, in the reign of King John
(1199-1216). Places where farmers and rural labourers negotiated the next season's work -
hiring gatherings called stattis or mops - often developed into
fairs.6) Many were held in the precincts of a cathedral or other sacred edifice - hence the familiar church fête of today.
Though primarily a secular event, the religious origins of the International Exhibition are still evident, not only in the quasi-ecclesiastical forms of the display galleries, but also in the kind of ceremonies considered appropriate to the building and the occasion. Thus performances of oratorio, another secularised form of sacred origin, have usually featured in the principal ceremonies of the International Exhibition. The Crystal Palace soon became the regular venue for some of the grandest oratorio performances of the century.
The Frankfort fair, which lasted from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, specialised in books and attracted printers from all over Europe. Once called the Academy or universal Exhibition of the Muses, 7) the Frankfort fair also embraced other works of art, craft and industry, including agricultural products, as well as featuring orators and philosophers, even dentists, who gave public lessons. There were the usual attractions too of music, fêtes and other spectacles. M. Tamir rightly sees this event as an important forerunner of the International Exhibition; and there were similar French precedents. In 1470 Louis XI negotiated with the Earl of Warwick to allow French artefacts to be imported tax-free for exhibition in London but when they arrived the Earl promptly confiscated most of them and the rest were seized by pirates during the return to France.8)
Fairs continued to multiply during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In England they included a wide variety of games, horse-races, may-pole dances and other popular entertainments. Some were held over longer periods and became huge. By the end of the eighteenth century there were hundreds of fairs throughout Europe, England and America. Until the nineteenth century, St. Bartholomew's Fair at Smithfield, London, and Sturbridge Fair at Cambridge, were the most important markets in England. The latter attracted people from all over the country, as well as traders from as far away as Russia seeking specialist wares.9)
With the industrial revolution, and the depopulation of the countryside, the economic function of the fairs rapidly declined and new methods of sale, promotion and distribution emerged. The festive side, however, remained popular - so much so that the authorities were constantly agitated by fears of disorder arising from the atmosphere of carnival licence which allowed or encouraged music, dancing, dramatics, lotteries, drinking, gaming and petty crime. 10)
British convicts and colonists brought these convivial traditions right across the world to Australia where, with continuing official anxiety and persistent intemperance, the culture of the British fair took root and soon flourished in the institution of the agricultural show, still held annually throughout the country. Something of the old fair continued in other Australian institutions such as the school bazaar, the church fête and the street stall. History was repeated at Sydney in 1879, when Australia's first International Exhibition evolved from what began as a regional event, planned by the Agricultural Society of New South Wales Even after its sudden transformation into a world exhibition, the proceedings at the Garden Palace retained much of the form and spirit of the old fair - especially in the sideshows and other minor attractions.
The fair also gave rise to other kinds of exhibition. During the early seventeenth century Italian artists began to exhibit their paintings, statues and landscape art at local fairs; and in France similar improvised displays soon evolved into more formal academies and salons. These were the first regular exhibitions of the fine arts in Europe and they became occasions of artistic competition, especially at Paris where in 1699 Louis XIV first allowed the grand gallery at the Louvre to be used as an exhibition space. In 1851 the salon system of juries and prizes, favoured by the aristocratic artistic and intellectual elites of Paris, was adopted for the International Exhibition which, despite the primary emphasis on craft, industry, science and practical invention, also featured some of the traditional fine arts.
The new, more useful kinds of exhibit had first been admitted to public gaze during the 1750s and `60s by the Society for the Advancement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London; and by the late eighteenth century industrial exhibitions were also beginning to appear on the Continent. Having established the Conservatoire des Arts et des Métiers in 1795, France mounted its first national exhibition at the Champ de Mars in 1798. This was expressly designed to encourage commercial development as well as public education.11) France's second national exhibition was held in 1801 in the grounds of the Louvre - now denominated the `Palais National des Arts et des Sciences' - and in association with the anniversary celebrations of the Republic. The following year saw a third national exhibition there and the creation of the Société pour l'encouragement de l'industrie nationale (modelled on the Society of Arts of London which first offered prizes for specimens of manufactures in 1756-7).
During the first half of the nineteenth century the rapid proliferation of industrial exhibitions at the regional and national levels finally led to the international exhibition. The immediate inspiration was undoubtedly French;12) In 1849 the Minister of Agriculture and Commerce unsuccessfully proposed the inclusion of foreign exhibits in the Paris exhibition of that year; and so the Great Exhibition of London became the first to become genuinely international - and that was the brainchild of Prince Albert whose vision and energy were largely responsible for its success: for the World's Exhibition, the world is entirely indebted to the Prince Consort.13) He also suggested the site of Hyde Park; it was Punch that named Joseph Paxton's masterpiece the Crystal Palace.
Immediate inspiration is one thing: to claim that the French alone were responsible for the international exhibition, as suggested by Tamir, is erroneous. It was England that initiated the industrial society and England provided the original models of the industrial exhibition, as well as creating the conceptual foundation of the universal exhibition. In his introduction, Tamir rightly insists that the new genre is essentially international and universal. Though the two great warring colonial powers might dispute the credit for expanding the industrial exhibition beyond national boundaries, there can be no question as to which was originally responsible for the second of its defining characteristics.
The earliest nineteenth-century exhibitions in England, emanating from the vestige of the fair as a commercial entrepot, were also directly influenced by social change and organised for the purpose of educating working men in the contemporary state of the technical arts. The Sydney Mechanics School of Arts was founded in 1833 by a band of migrant mechanics and played a significant role in the development of the technological movement fundamental to the Sydney Exhibitions.14) Like the earlier fairs in their development, the Exhibitions gradually became less concerned with what was sold than what they represented. Integral to the culture of nineteenth-century industrialising societies they began to express national identity, and their architecture, iconography and rhetoric established parameters and conventions for the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. The Sydney Exhibitions of 1870 and 1879, and Melbournes in 1880 and 1888, were modelled on that Great Exhibition, another in 1862 in London, and also on their European counterparts; Paris (1854, 1867, 1878), Vienna (1873) and Philadelphia (1876). They became, in turn, the exemplars for smaller colonial exhibitions: Adelaide (1881, 1887), Perth (1881), Christchurch (1882), Dunedin (1889) and Hobart (1894-5). The Exhibitions were not simply collections of cultural artefacts of the late nineteenth century but were themselves powerful expressions of the culture of the age where nations demonstrated economic achievements, gave an epitome of their trade and prospects, announced their symbolic arrival among the society of nations, and opened the way for closer international relations.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century they were an elementary demonstration of the principle of learning by looking, strongly endorsed by contemporary pedagogical theory. It was postulated that abstract reasoning was only the final stage of the learning process and that people learned firstly by the observation of everyday objects and secondly by comparison and classification.15) The Victorians, in these early Exhibitions, paralleled the development of their characteristic institutions: the museum, the art gallery, the diorama, the cyclorama and the tableau vivant perfecting this science of learning by looking. The nineteenth-century Exhibition extended the Enlightenment taxonomy that pursued the principles of classification and comparison applied by scientists to the natural world to embrace man's own creations. Reflection on the natural order had, in the eighteenth century, inspired religious devotion; so did the contemplation of man-made achievements of the highest order revivify the Renaissance ideal of the unification of religion and science. Moreover, not only in the great diversity and number of its exhibits was the Great Exhibition of 1851 evaluated, but in the breadth of its social appeal. The advance of popular education had generally overcome functional illiteracy. Nevertheless, it had left many people at least unable to understand technical material. In the transformation of a movement designed to disseminate technical knowledge among the provincial working class of Britain to a grand exposition of material culture broadened so as to appeal to all classes and sections of society, the international Exhibition's outreach was not only technological but theological, in a humanist sense.
The 1851 Exhibition broke with the tradition of simple rectangular spaces (typical of the library or small museum) where various classes of exhibits were displayed horizontally on tables or in display cases, ascending from raw products through manufactured goods to technical devices and finally to the highest forms of applied art and design. Instead, "courts" and "pavilions" were created dividing the vast exhibition space into national encampments. This functional transformation of the Exhibitions of the 1830's and 1840's, from a simple technological display into a national and quasi-religious festival created a confused architectural massing in some later exhibitions and allowed the emergence of a new focus: the machinery hall - often the largest and most central building in the show - where myriad machines made visible the technological and industrial age.
The Crystal Palace, with its transparent walls of glass, created the illusion of unlimited space yet its plan was ecclesiastical. Cruciform, with nave, transepts and choir it was not palatial in any royal sense, but, in effect, a striking new cathedral. Religious associations were heightened and enforced by the 1862 London Exhibition Building. The introduction of classical elements such as great domes and flanking towers, but with vistas along its arched nave akin to St. Pauls Cathedral, provided a model for the Australians James Barnet and Joseph Reed, the architects for the Sydney Exhibition of 1879 and the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880 respectively.
The Victorians believed in the perpetuation of tradition yet worshiped material progress, even the idea of change for its own sake. The architecture of the international Exhibitions mirrors the tensions of this state of mind. Cantatas and odes vaunting traditional mores and ideals of international brotherhood and material progress had their pictorial counterparts in the statues, symbolic murals, illuminated addresses and medallions that were produced to commemorate the occasion. But the popular appeal of the Exhibitions remains hard to assess. Promoters of Exhibitions in the New World emphasised their potential benefit to the working classes, that they would give the working people of the colony an improved technical education by showing the proficiency of technical art abroad compared with that at home. Yet the growing popularity of Exhibitions did not necessarily further their educational influence. It was clearly for entertainment rather than instruction that most of the crowds came. The sideshows of English fairs were re-established in Australian cities because the light population density of pastoralism could not sustain country fairs.16) Melbourne nurtured sideshow culture, as did Sydney, and it became a constituent element of the 1879 Garden Palace Exhibition and the 1888 Centenary Exhibition in Melbourne.
1) `Par Exposition universelle internationale, il faut comprehendre l'expositionqui est universelle in contenu'. M. Tamir, Les Expositions Internationales à travers les ages...(Paris, 1939), Introduction (p.13). See p.15. This was a doctoral thesis presented to the Faculty of Letters, University of Paris and published by Galerie Jeanne Bucher. The book is the first comprehensive history of the International Universal Expositions from 1851. Paul Dupays published that same year his Vie prestigieuse des expositions; historique (Paris 1939).
2) Calvert Watkins (ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Boston, 1968), pp.14 & 42.
3) Tamir, op. Cit., p. 15.
4) Cheng-han Wu, The Temple Fairs in Late Imperial China, Ann Arbor, Michigan, PhD thesis, Princeton University , University microfilms international, 3 microfiches.
5) See T.F.G. Dexter, The Pagan Origin of Fairs ,New Knowledge Press, Perranportn, Cornwall, 1934.
6) For a discussion of the origins of fairs, see Cornelius Walford, Fairs Past and Present: a Chapter in the History of Commerce, Elliot Stock, London, 1883, reprinted by Augustus M. Kelly, New York, 1968, pp. 1-14; K.L.McCutcheon, Yorkshire Fairs and Markets to the End of the Eighteenth Century, Thoresby Society, Leeds, 1940, pp. 1-13; and Henry Morley, Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair, Chatto and Windus, London, 1880, pp. 1-33.
7) Tamir, op. cit., pp.15-16.
8) Tamir, op. cit., p.18.
9) See Robert Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973, esp. p. 23.
10) See Richard Broome, "Windows on Other Worlds: The Rise and Fall of Sideshow Alley", Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 30, No. 12, April 1999, pp. 1-22.
11) Tamir, op. Cit., p.20.
12) Tamir, op. Cit., p.25.
13) The Crystal Palace Exhibition; illusrated catalogue... (reprinted from the Art- Journal, Special Issue  New York, 1970), p.xiv.
14) See G. Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture, Cambridge, Mass.,1957, pp. 111-152. For a general introduction to the nineteenth-century Australian Exhibitions see Graeme Davison, "Exhibitions", Australian Cultural History, No.2 1982/3, Institutions and Culture in Australia, eds. S.L. Goldberg and F.B. Smith, pp. 5-21. See also Toshio Kusamitsu, "Great Exhibitions before 1851", History Workshop, No. 9, Spring 1980, pp. 70-89; and Audrey Short, "Workers Under Glass in 1851", Victorian Studies, X, 1966, pp. 193-202.
15) See George Ricks, Object Lessons, London, 1882, p. 2.
16) Broome, Op.Cit., p.5.