I work in South Kensington, an area of London which has been heavily influenced by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Colleges of Art and Music, Imperial College, the Royal Albert Hall and the Science Museum all have roots in the Great Exhibition.
This isn’t the only part of London to have been shaped by the Exhibition though. Several miles away, so far South you are almost in Kent, is a part of town often known as Crystal Palace because, in 1854, the main building of the Great Exhibition (commonly known as “the Crystal Palace”) was moved there. This relocated Crystal Palace was extended in its new site and hosted concerts as well as public exhibitions and, after World War 1, was the first site of the Imperial War Museum (now housed further North, in the old “Bedlam” asylum by Elephant and Castle). The palace burnt down in 1936, but the ruins remain in Crystal Palace Park.
The blaze that took down the palace was immense, and still talked about in the area. I remember my Grandfather telling me he could see the fire several miles away in West Norwood.
All that is left really are a couple of statues, and a few flights of stone stairs. These stairs are wide, expansive and impressive, but then there is nothing above them. The main structure’s simply gone. As with many ruins, however, standing amongst them you can really imagine what the original structure might have been like.
There is something very modern about these ruins, at least compared to Roman or Crusader ones I’ve visited (ruins from London’s Blitz having been largely built over). It might be the BBC mast that dominates the skyline to the North, or the buildings fo the 1960’s sports stadium to the South. Or it could be simply that they are very modern. In many respects the Great Exhibition was a declaration of a certain type of mid-19th century British modernity and its various scattered remains reflect this.
A statue of Joseph Paxton the designer of the palace sits just next to the ruins. I think he looks suitably proud of himself, as well as suitably sad that they are no longer there.
The other amazing legacy of the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace Park are the dinosaurs. These were built in the 1840s by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkin, commissioned by Richard Owen. It was Owen who coined the term dinosaur (or “Dinosauria” at least) and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, situated next to the institutions left over from the Great Exhibition (although unlike the V&A and Science Museum, not so directly linked to it).
There is an amazing and oft-repeated story about a dinner party held inside one the iguanodon statues on New Year’s Eve in 1853. So the story goes, this was only possible because at the time many paleontologists belied that iguanodon’s stood on all fours. If the iguanodon stood on two legs, they wouldn’t have had the space to fit quite so many people for dinner.
I love that the Great Exhibition, an iconic statement about the future and the nature of progress, would be connected with some as ancient as dinosaurs. Of course, the study of Natural History was one of the ways mid 19th century people articulated a modern scientific view of the world, but there is something fascinating about the juxtaposition of eras in the park. These dinosaurs also invite reflection upon the ways in which our understanding of Natural History (as well as human history) changes over time. They are quite different from the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park films, and yet they both took the best scientific advice available at the time.
I think my favourite Crystal Palace dinosaurs are the crocodile-ish ones. There is something quite Quentin Blake about them, like something out of a Roald Dahl kids book. The kids book link is, I think important. The shift to South London lends a rather different tone to the science, industrial design and technology associated with the Great Exhibition. Yes, kids run around the museums of South Kensington screaming about ice cream, but there is something much more domesticated about this suburban parkland space. Even if the dinosaurs can look quite dramatic in the evening winter sunshine.
There are a host of books on the history of the Great Exhibition, and Victorian paleontology. My favourite in terms of the latter is Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters, a truly gripping piece of non-fiction. Or for a fictional take on the spirit of modernity embodied in the Great Exhibition, the film Steamboy is very entertaining. In terms of online resources, you can watch this lovely video about the dinosaurs, or read this great blogpost about their history (which includes a picture of the part inside the iguanodon). I can also recommend this BBC podcast about the Great Exhibition, and the wikipedia entry on the palace is pretty good.
EDIT (12th Jan): if you visit for youself, you might like the Darwin and the Dinosaurs audio trail.