Until we get our hands on a working time machine, we never stop daydreaming about which part of history we’d go back to if we could. High on our priority list would be South Kensington in 1862 (of course!). Many of the features that make this cultural centre of London so iconic today would be absent but the general geographic blueprint of the site would have been much the same. Despite the absence of the Victoria and Albert Museum in its present format, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum or the Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington was still carved up by the vertical and horizontal lines of Cromwell and Exhibition Roads, now dominated by these cultural institutions. On the present site of the V&A stood its predecessor, the South Kensington Museum, while on the present site of the Natural History and Science Museums stood the specially constructed building for the 1862 International Exhibition.
What follows here is a set of annotated photographs taken by the editors of visit1862 while walking around the site of the 1862 International Exhibition, as it exists today. Each photograph can be read on its own, or in relation to the brief reflections upon 1862 that they have inspired.
1. Start: This is not only the start of our walk, but it also marks one of the points of origin for the 1862 International Exhibition. Henry Cole was a major player in the development of the 1851 Great Exhibition; while he was never officially involved in the organisation of 1862, his influence and opinions continued to loom large.
2. Victoria and Albert Museum: or, the South Kensington Museum as it was known in 1862. Established in 1852, it was moved to its present day site in 1857 and was therefore positioned next to the 1862 International Exhibition. The museum hosted a special exhibition to run alongside the event.
3. Traffic: The amount of traffic along both Cromwell and Exhibition road is nothing new… One of the major complaints about the 1862 International Exhibition was that it was difficult to get to. Major traffic jams regularly lined the route to the exhibition, and those attempting to get an omnibus on their way home would have to call on the gods if they didn’t want to be kept waiting for years on end.
4. Cromwell Road: The 1862 International Exhibition was located along Cromwell Road, its façade looking south towards Chelsea. Today large trees have grown up to mask the view along Cromwell Road to the Natural History Museum, but in 1862 the exhibition building would have stood tall and uninhibited to the gaze of onlookers.
5. Natural History Museum: The façade of the Natural History Museum runs along the line of the 1862 International Exhibition building. Although the 1862 International Exhibition building was positioned slightly further away from the road, the imposing physicality of the Gothic Revival Natural History Museum helps us to visualise something of what the original structure would have looked like in 1862.
6. Queues: Visitors entered the International Exhibition through ticketed turnstiles. It is likely that on the busy days when large numbers of working-class visitors were allowed to enter the exhibition, large queues would have formed outside. Visitors were also occasionally forced to queue to see particularly popular exhibits in the exhibition – a prime example would be the mechanical singing bird in the Swiss Court.
7. Natural Intrusions: South Kensington has been specifically designed as an open and easily navigable space in which knowledge can be easily shared and imparted. However, the encroachment of nature has occasionally disrupted the openness of this space – the trees planted along Cromwell Road outside of the Natural History Museum mask the building from clear view.
8. Seasonal Change: The 1862 International Exhibition ran between May and November 1862. The experience which visitors had of the exhibition would therefore have changed according to the season in which they visited and the nature of the weather on the day of their visit. Additionally, elite visitors were subject to the Season – the period running from Easter to August every year that saw them take up residence in the city, in order to participate in social and political life.
9. Historical Change: South Kensington has changed and developed over time. It may have consistently been a centre of culture and knowledge since the nineteenth century, at the forefront of new design, fashion, music, art, etcetera – but it has also retained elements of its historical character, while adopting new additions. These combine and collate to make South Kensington what it is today.
10. Knowledge Production: One of the original purposes of both the 1851 Great Exhibition and the 1862 International Exhibition was to encourage good design and the development of new knowledge in Britain in order to maintain the country’s Imperial power. One of the most prominent contemporary examples of the continuation of this process within South Kensington is Imperial College London – a key player in the production of scientific and engineering knowledge in the country. The University and other academic institutions strive to make their knowledge and achievements accessible; however, the very geography of Imperial College may hinder such communication. Only a select few can enter and navigate the spaces of the College and, therefore, navigate the knowledge that it produces.
11. Signage: Throughout South Kensington there is a proliferation of signage, which guides and directs the visitor around the space. The signposts select which are the most important sites in the area and indicate the route that those in control of this space would prefer an individual to take – thereby attempting to design your experience of this cultural quarter.
12. End: The walk is concluded at the Albert Memorial. The scale and grandeur of this monument to Queen Victoria’s husband is akin to that of the 1862 International Exhibition itself. Albert’s memorial marks an appropriate end to this walk due to the part that he played in organising the 1851 Great Exhibition, transforming South Kensington into a cultural hub. Prince Albert met his own end in 1861… As the nation mourned, the exhibition originally planned to mark the ten year anniversary of the 1851 Exhibition was postponed by a year, meaning that the event instead debuted in 1862.
We seem to have returned full circle!
Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason © 2013