How the display of ‘otherness’ at the Great Exhibition in 1851 created a national identity in Britain
On the 1st of May in 1851, the opening of the Great Exhibition marked the beginning of the creation of a corporal British identity which was drafted through dissociation from other foreign stereotypes. Although Prince Albert, head of the organising Royal Commission, wanted the Great Exhibition to create international family-like ties among the exhibiting states, it stressed the differences between those nations and supported rising nationalism instead.1 The very fact that the Royal Commission structured the exhibition into the United Kingdom, its colonies and foreign countries, revealed its focus on British instead of global achievements.2
However, as well as the exhibition’s location, the manner in which it was presented is also of great significance, since it demonstrated superiority. In particular, the display of ‘otherness’ contributed to this emerging British identity as it contrasted Britain as more civilized, progressive and thus superior to other states. This essay will examine how the notion of ‘otherness’ and thus the image of superiority is linked to the creation of a British identity. It will focus on India’s representation at the Great Exhibition since this image of the ‘other’ was massively used in the Indian department – although India was placed within the British sector and in the very centre of the exhibition.3 While the visitors were astonished by the oriental glamour, those displayed stereotypes created not only a sense of pride among the British over their conquests but also evoked the idea of Britain being more civilised than India. Finally, this contrasting of cultures and values created a consensus of what it meant to be British and thus let visiting Britons identify with that.
Although India was displayed as central to the British Empire, not many Britons had an idea of what India was like. This was shown in an article in the Illustrated London News about the exhibition which stated: “Although in the British department, we have a right to treat it as foreign, because nine-tenths of the contents will be new to nine-tenths of the visitors.”4 Therefore, it was easy for the East India Company – the main exhibitor of the Indian compartment – to draw a certain image of India which suited their needs. Since their colonial actions in India were questioned at the time, the Company portrayed India on the one hand as a conquered possession although it was not formally ruled by British government until 1858.5 By doing so, the East India Company not only justified their operations in India but gave the impression that India was indeed a British possession and therefore implied British superiority over the subcontinent.6 On the other hand, India was exhibited as a country bursting in oriental glamour and ancient traditions with a “great display of taste”7 and the “glittering [Indian] pavilion”8 with its jewels, thrones and “marvellous Indian carvings in irony”9 was absorbed by the visitors as an oriental “fairyland”10 or as an “Indian romance.”11
Nevertheless, it is important to note that a visitor’s impression of India consisted more of stereotypes than of authentic native Indian culture since natives were not really represented at the Great Exhibition.12 Furthermore, by describing India as “the far-off, the strange, the wonderful, the original, the true, the brave, the conquered,”13 the guide showed India’s image of being beautiful as well as strange and – since it stressed the British conquest of India as well – being obedient and thus inferior to its colonists. Notably, the display of the Koh-I-Noor diamond, which was a present by the East India Company to Queen Victoria in 1850, embodied this imagined economic and political power of the British Empire and reminded British and foreign visitors of Britain’s command over India. 14 In the end, the East India Company achieved its aim since India’s representation not only calmed anxieties about the ethics of colonisation, but also triggered a rise in a commercial and economic interest in India’s arts and crafts. Meanwhile, in portraying India’s exoticism and otherness, the Great Exhibition emphasised cultural differences. British political values like democracy and freedom were displayed as superior and people identified with those. Thus, this comparison created a kind of nationalism which overcame social boundaries like gender or class to a certain degree. Therefore, I agree with Edward Said who claimed that “the Orient has helped to define Europe […] as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience”15 and that the display of ‘otherness’ at the Great Exhibition helped to define Britain and its culture as a civilized alternative to the – highly stereotyped – oriental culture of India.
However, this orientalism not only lead to a definition of what British culture actually was, but also marked it as the most superior, too. While visitors admired the glittering objects, they referred to them as “works of [a] living savage population”16 and were surprised at “how such people and such tools produce such results as we have seen.”17 Another author described two Indian model workers as “two sawyers at work with a most primitive saw.”18 or as a “lean, starved-out regiment of squalid beggars, half-naked, or with scanty folds of coarsest cotton flung around their wasted limbs.”19 This characterisation focused on the inferiority and otherness of the Indian workers and concluded that British workers were well looking, efficient, healthy and equipped with modern technique – and therefore fulfilled their standards of a civilized society.20 While Indians were described as a stationary society of “barbarians”21, Britain was imagined as the most sophisticated and civilized people since it contrasted their political institutions, their way of living or social values from foreign ones.22
But most importantly, by contrasting India and Britain, Britons now assumed themselves as the most mannered nation in the world and saw their standards as the only correct ones.23
1 See Jeffrey A. Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1999), 189.
2 This classification of exhibitors can be found in The Royal Commission, Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations: 1851 (London: Spencer Brothers, 1851), 15.
3 The connection between India’s placement at the exhibition and its meaning is well described in Saloni Mathur, “Exhibits of Empire: Visual Displays of Colonial India” (Dissertation, Anthropology, New School for Social Research, 1998), 28-60.
4 The Illustrated London News, “A Guide to the Great Industrial Exhibition,” May 10, 1851, 483, Great Exhibition Supplement.
5 The new Act of 1858 dissolved the power of the East India Company and transferred the sovereignty to the British government by making it a formal crown colony. A brief outline of the colonial history of India can be found in Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (Harlow: Longman, 2007), 61-79.
6 See Lara Kriegel, “Narrating the Subcontinent in 1851: India at the Crystal Palace,” in The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Louise Purbrick (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 169.
7 “India and Indian Contributions to the Industrial Bazaar,” in The Illustrated Exhibitor: A Tribute to the World's Industrial Jubilee, comprising Sketches, by Pen and Pencil, of the Principal Objects in the Great Exhibition, of the Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations 18 (London: John Cassel, 1851), 318.
8 Ibid., 319.
9 Talli's History and Description of the Crystal Palace and the Exhibition of the World's Industry in 1851, 3 vols. 1 (London: John Tallis and Co., 1852), 14.
10 “India and Indian Contributions to the Industrial Bazaar”, 319.
11 The Illustrated London News, “ A Guide to the Great Industrial Exhibition”.
12 See John R. Davis, The Great Exhibition (Stroud: Sutton, 1999), 161.
13 “India and Indian Contributions to the Industrial Bazaar”, 317.
14 See Davis, The Great Exhibition, 138 and Kriegel, “Narrating the Subcontinent in 1851”, 166.
15 Edward W. Said, Or ientalism, Reprinted with a new Preface, Penguin Modern Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 1-2.
16 The Art-Journal, “Wanderings in the Crystal Palace,” June 1851, 181.
17 “India and Indian Contributions to the Industrial Bazaar”, 319.
18 The Illustrated London News, “A Guide to the Great Industrial Exhibition”.
19 “India and Indian Contributions to the Industrial Bazaar”, 319.
20 Kriegel, “Narrating the Subcontinent in 1851”, 165.
21 “India and Indian Contributions to the Industrial Bazaar”, 319.
22 See Mathur, “Exhibits of Empire”, 43 and Catherine Hall, “Culture and Identity in Imperial Britain,” in The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives, ed. S. E. Stockwell (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 202-4.
23 See Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument,” Journal of British Studies 31, no. 4 (1992), 324 and Hall, “Culture and Identity in Imperial Britain”, 204.
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