On Wednesday 8th July the editors of visit1862.com had the privilege of running a field trip as part of the International Conference of Historical Geographers.
Comprised of seven historical geographers with a wide range interests including the development of museums, royal residences, London and the history of science and technology, our tour group were potentially more interesting than our tour! However, although the 1862 International Exhibition is used to being upstaged (the quirks of history and the glass wonder of Jospeh Paxton’s Crystal Palace largely leaving the International Exhibition of 1862 overlooked by historians), on this occasion the exhibition and the marks that it has left on South Kensington, London, shone through.
Meeting at the front of the Victoria and Albert Museum, we walked around the outskirts of the 1862 International Exhibition Building (built on the present site of the Natural History Museum). We worked our way up the hill, walking through what was once the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens and is now Imperial College.
Passing the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Art, our tour reached a crescendo at the Albert Memorial, where the editors were temporarily relieved of their tour guiding roles while we were expertly guided around the memorial by Pam. Taken behind the memorial’s hallowed golden gates, we spent some quality time with Albert (who’s finger holds open a place in a copy of the 1851 Great Exhibition Catalogue), got up close and personal with great artists, sculptors, musicians and architects and were enrolled into the overwhelming allegorical meanings embedded within the memorial’s structure.
Sad to leave Albert behind, our tour continued back down the hill to the Victorian and Albert Museum. We perused documents printed at the time of the 1862 International Exhibition that are held in the National Art Library’s Collections (a list can be seen in our previous post) and took a whistle stop tour of the objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum that were displayed at the 1862 International Exhibition.
Despite occasional showers of rain, the tour was incredibly enjoyable and well received. For the editors of visit1862, the embodied process of walking the exhibition’s boundaries with our group provided a powerful insight into visitors’ geographical experiences of the 1862 International Exhibition. It conveyed the scale of the exhibition’s space, suggesting the navigational problems that many visitors’ commented on. And it hinted at the difficulties that visitors’ also recorded about getting to and from the exhibition (potentially aided by the slightly curtailed nature of the final section of a tour in order for all members to return home before the onset of that evening’s tube strike!).
The tour also demonstrated to us the huge potential that lies within using South Kensington as a material and spatial archive of the 1851 and 1862 International Exhibitions and their legacies. So many of the buildings, geographical layouts and general characteristics of this space continue to reflect the ideas, purposes and personalities that inspired and affected both of these events. It is therefore hoped that the discussions and reflections that this tour provoked will result in a number of new articles on visit1862.com. Watch this space.
© Ruth Mason, 2015