Memories of the Future: Context

The fourth research post by RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).

By Katie Vann

In preparation for the collaborative exhibition undertaken by the RCA in December, the History of Design students conducted research into various aspects of the 1862 Exhibition to help generate exhibition ideas.

My research initially focused on the various sociopolitical contexts that shaped both the inception and reception of the 1862 Exhibition. Instead of focusing on the innumerable contextual forces that led to the exhibition being neglected by history, for this post I thought it would be more interesting to discuss how interconnections between geographic contexts were materially and imaginatively conceived.

Imagining Interconnectivity

The fact that the 1862 International Exhibition has been judged as a failure does not mean that it lost its ability to capture the imaginations of it’s contemporaries. In August 1861 Robert Bowley, the General Manager of Crystal Palace, wrote a short treatise outlining in moral terms the need for the 1862 Exhibition’s administration to geographically connect outlying cities to the exhibition site in South Kensington. He argued that more railway links between cities in the UK would help the exhibition fulfill its main goal of showcasing international technologies to the working classes. He stressed;

‘It is to show that the country which exercises the highest intelligence and the greatest industry in the conversion of the raw materials which nature so lavishly provides for the use of all, will be most successful in the industrial race’.

Bowley’s treatise speaks about the potential that the reorganization of geographic space had for shaping a truly international exhibition. The concerns of Bowley and his contemporaries should not be overlooked as they indicate that the 1862 Exhibition was an arena where international relations were hugely influential from the exhibition’s inception. Historian John Davis attested to this where he noted that the layout of the exhibition was originally meant to be a classification system of technologies and industries rather than being based around countries and territories. Further, whereas the 1851 Exhibition was predominantly about sales, Davis argues that in the organization, planning and execution of the 1862 Exhibition it was taken for granted that it would attract international audiences.

In the exhibition, the Austrian and Prussian stands were divided by the Western Dome. This schism between Austria and Prussia needs explaining as it speaks of the greater political and contextual concerns that contributed to generating Bowley’s global ‘industrial race’.

Edmund Walker, 'Interior of the international exhibition of 1862', 1862, watercolour, 74.5 x 104.6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1110-1901 © V&A. 2014

Edmund Walker, ‘Interior of the international exhibition of 1862’, 1862, watercolour, 74.5 x 104.6 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, 1110-1901 © V&A. 2014

Austro-Prussian Tensions

1862 was a hugely significant year for global politics. On Saturday 3 May 1862, two days after the opening of the exhibition, The Illustrated London News ran a spread that linked global tensions directly with the exhibition’s organization. It suggested that a great error of 1851 was that it took for granted ‘universal brotherhood’ between nations, forgetting that ‘War will not be put down by any amount of skill in making pruning-hooks’. In short, this article implied that the 1851 Exhibition did not prevent the Wars that came, nor did it solve social strife; ‘man’s mental, moral and spiritual necessities are not to be satisfied by material wealth’. The 1862 Exhibition was conceived as capable of buffering tensions between nations rather than simply being a vehicle for commercialism.

J.McNeven, J. (draughtsman (artist)), William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), ‘The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition’, 1851 (printed and published), print, Victoria and Albert Museum: 19627, © V&A, 2014

J.McNeven, J. (draughtsman (artist)), William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), ‘The transept from the Grand Entrance, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition’, 1851 (printed and published), print, Victoria and Albert Museum: 19627, © V&A, 2014

By 1862 the organisers of the exhibition saw continuing conflict in America and the war in Italy had delayed the Exhibition by a year. Furthermore, 1862 was a crucial year for Germany as it coincided with resurgent nationalism, or the New Era. Alongside growing French power, there were tensions between Austria and Prussia over the organization of the 39 German States. The Prussian-dominated Zollverein, or Customs Union, became a vehicle for Prussia to lead a promotional industrial policy. The physical layout of the exhibition became a site where these conflicts were played out. 2,121 exhibitors came from the Prussian Customs Union with 1,413 from Austria. In opposition, the material displays of exhibitors in the Austrian and Prussian Courts reinstated the divide between the two geopolitical entities.

 Communication Channels

As in 1851, the 1862 Exhibition produced material effect overseas. Germany was among the nations who sent commissioners to produce detailed reports on the exhibition. It was also discussed in popular newspapers where for instance, Lothar Bucher produced a series of articles for the National Zeitung. In Pictures from Abroad, he noted that although the Exhibition claimed to represent the world, many of the products exhibited by the colonies were sent by merchants and diplomats rather than by indigenous peoples, thus making the Exhibition not as global as one might think. Bucher’s discussion highlights both envy and disgust towards British industry and the outputs of their colonial territories in India.

Bucher is useful for showing that Germany secured preeminence in reporting on the Exhibition. Despite being perceived by some as a flop, we cannot ignore the material channels of communication that transnationally transmitted knowledge about the 1862 Exhibition to overseas territories. Instead of seeing the 1862 International Exhibition as a failure, reports written about the event show that the transmission of knowledge over geographic territories identified processes such as the Bessemer process and the manufacture of steel to audiences in Germany.

Although less remembered than its 1851 counterpart, the 1862 Exhibition can help us think through how concepts such as geographic connectivity and the ‘industrial race’ were crystallised context of the Exhibition space.

Suggested Reading

Bowley, Robert.K. (General Manager of Crystal Palace) The Exhibition of 1862; How are the working classes throughout the Kingdom to Get to it? (London, Aug 17th 1861)

The Illustrated London News, May 3, 1862

Davis, John. R, Representation, Rivalry and Transfer: The German states and the 1862 Exhibition (London 2014)

© Katie Vann, MA History of Design student, Royal College of Art & Victoria and Albert Museum

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The Tempest Prognosticator

The third research post from RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).


A machine that predicts the weather using slimy invertebrates might seem an unusual invention to come out of the Victorian era. Yet, in 1851, Whitby physician George Merryweather completed his Tempest Prognosticator, a machine that relied on the instinct of leeches to forecast approaching storms and weather disturbances. The machine was made up of 12 bottles arranged in a circle around a bell fitted above. Each bottle was attached to a small hammer, loosely tied to a whalebone. Each bottle contained a live leech which when agitated by the weather, climbed to the top of the bottle and dislodged the whalebone to ring the bell.

The object may have been shown at 1851 Great Exhibition, the ‘successful predecessor’, but its failure makes it an interesting consideration alongside the visit1862 project. Why did Victorian society shun this object despite evidence of its success? This was not so much a question that needs to be answered as starting point for looking at the object and Victorian mentality.

Working Replica of The Tempest Prognosticator or Leech Barometer © Whitby Museum

Working Replica of The Tempest Prognosticator or Leech Barometer © Whitby Museum

One might simply conclude that the object was out of place in time, amongst a Victorian preoccupation with mechanisation and productivity and eight years before Darwin’s theories would be published and take hold. On the surface, perhaps, the idea that the lowly leech could be more intuitive than a man does seem reason enough for the Victorians to have dismissed it. On the other hand, the theory that would be accepted less than a decade later might also suggest that the primitiveness of the leech was precisely what would allow it greater powers in perceiving nature. (Would Merryweather’s machine then have been more successful in 1862?)

In any case, Merryweather’s fascination with animal instinct was not atypical of the Victorian mind. In fact, Merryweather was himself inspired by the eighteenth-century poet William Cowper who wrote to his cousin of the ‘prophetic powers of his pet leech’.

“I have a leech in a bottle that foretells all these prodigies ad convulsions of Nature… no change in the weather surprises him, he is worth all the barometers in the world.” [1]

Katherine Anderson’s study of Victoria meteorology suggests that these were popular ideas of weather wisdom typically attributed to sailor and shepherds and others who were adept in reading these signs. Victorian literature represents such figures prolifically such as Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak to whom ‘the appearance of toads, and spiders from the thatched roof, slugs crawling indoors, indicated that the storm would be followed by cold continuous rain’. These are strikingly Romantic notions, no doubt. It is interesting to consider Romanticism with regards to this object and 1851, just a year after what is conventionally referred to as the peak period of the Romantic Movement. (Playing devil’s advocate- maybe the invention would actually have been more successful 10 years earlier? Did the machine just miss its moment?)

Merryweather’s machine may fit more easily in a literary history and tradition than a scientific one. This is not to say that this is where it belongs or that science has nothing to do with it. On the contrary, Anderson describes the Tempest Prognosticator as ‘a hybrid product, a combination of telegraphy and meteorological instrument that appeared to produce a special kind of instant sensibility’. So, empirical science and mechanics meet Romantic sensibility in a machine that attempts to read nature in the activity of leeches. This attests to the multi-layeredness and complexity of investigating an object. I found it interesting to consider the social context in this way and to consider the objects place in time. Not to trivialise the complexities of expositions, but to consider temporality as an important and contributing factor. How might 10 years (either in the past or future) have made a difference to the machine’s reception? What happened in the 10+ years following the highly successful Great Exhibition that made the 1862 International Exhibition a relative failure? Is it all a matter of timing?

[1] Cowper, William. (1874). Prognostications by Leeches. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art. 4 (Popular Science), 239.

Recommended Reading

William Cowper (1874), ‘Prognostications by Leeches’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art. 4 (Popular Science)

Thomas Hardy (2002), Far from the Maddening Crowd. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Katharine Anderson (2005), ‘Maps. Instruments and Weather Wisdom’, Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meterology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 171-234

© Oyin Akande, History of Design MA student, Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016

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1862 Exposition –the International Galleries explored through the notion of the Sensory

The second research post by RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).


An exploration of the sensory engagement and experience of visitors to the 1862 exhibition, with a focus on the visual and felt elements, using collated press reviews as the primary source for analysis.  This brief discussion looks at the built and human construction of the Exposition as perceived then.

The 1862 International Exposition was a large-scale, high profile and multi-purpose exhibition, designed to follow from the success of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Supported by Prince Albert and enthusiastically carried through by Henry Cole and his associates. The main aims of the exhibition were to promote peace and international relations, trade, education, food, spectacle, national identity and commerce.

In order to deliver this a new building designed by Captain Fowke was delivered on the South Kensington site now home to the Natural History Museum. The plan consisted of a central temporary exhibition area –a nave, two transepts and six courts made in plate glass and iron and timber frames. Around this were arranged picture galleries with a refreshment area on the north side built in contrasting brick. This building received mixed reviews from public and press.

Engraving of the 1862 International Exhibition Building, c.1862, SCM 1991-105:2 © Science Museum

Engraving of the 1862 International Exhibition Building, c.1862, SCM 1991-105:2 © Science Museum

The building was viewed by the Blackwood magazine as an example of ‘ugliness’ reflecting the ‘native railway style’ of architecture. The Sunday Review also stated that the building had ‘no real centre to the structure’, ‘staircases to the galleries were too few and too small’, ‘the whole arrangement particularly abominable’ and showed ‘audacity’ and ‘bad taste’.

More mildly the Guardian stated that the building ‘excited little disgust and no enthusiasm’ further mentioning that the ‘romance of glass sacrificed to the reality of brick’ and the domes appeared as ‘gigantic balloons’ suggesting they appeared ludicrous and unstable devices. It is interesting to note that the original building plan had included an extremely large central concert hall however this was not realised due to the considerable expense it would have entailed.

Although the structure when seen as a mere edifice was strongly criticized–what were the reactions or experience like when the building was in use? Reviews of the opening ceremony and experience of viewing the exhibition ranged from mild to enthusiastic. ‘That remarkable light house lantern, with its copper cupola and revolving glasses’ seemed to delight the spectator as did the ‘pagoda like structure’ of the domes seen in sunlight as having a ‘fairy lustre’.

British Picture Gallery, 1862 International Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1550-1927 © V&A, 2014

British Picture Gallery, 1862 International Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1550-1927 © V&A, 2014

The opening ceremony was also seen as a highlight, where guests had the chance of experiencing the building as it had intended to be. With Royal Guests leading the procession along with the Commissioners, there also assembled the rank and file of the various professions, from civic to military officials offering ‘a perfect pageant in court dress and uniforms’ reflecting a spectrum of the classes in display.

The procession was accompanied by music including God save the Queen sung by the multitude, in addition to poetry such as England’s Welcome by Thomas Hood and military music, for example; ‘a shrill blast from the trumpeteers of the Life Guards…announced the procession had begun to move’.

As the Guardian mentioned ‘to the great mass of visitors the speeches were a dead silence, the music a beautiful indistinctness’. However, the crowd itself was perceived as part of the whole experience depicted by the Guardian as ‘polite, well dressed, amused’. In the account of the masses in the nave the sheer numbers of people were experienced as a felt pressure ‘the crowd were gathered as thick as bees’ suggesting a noisy and potentially dangerous physicality.

At the higher end of the crowd the variety and colour of the guests clothing was in itself sensational, as one reviewer puts it ‘the eye will grow satiated at last with rich hues and varied costumes’1. The reviewers also described the reaction of the crowd when a sensation was created on the entrance of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was also noted that the Duke of Cambridge and political leaders were loudly cheered, the noise of the crowd becoming part of the lived experience of the Exposition.

The action, sound and physical dress of the procession created a ‘magnificent scene’ ‘as a spectacle this was the most impressive point in the days ceremonial’. As the ‘glittering crowd’ and ‘glowing mass’ gathered around the dais where the seats of state were place under a drape of velvet.

The type and variety of exhibits on offer lent an almost chaotic element to the scene and as the Guardian representative put it, the possibility of looking at anything in detail was deemed impossible. If the visual impact of the number and variety of exhibits was overwhelming could viewers gain or enjoy the exhibits in other ways? The aspect of touch remains unclear, in the collation of reviews assembled by Kempt it is mentioned only once, in relation to the instrument of the grand piano, thus we can deduce that some objects may have been touchable.

The sheer scale of the exhibition was apparent if we consider that the Western half divide among some 16 thousand exhibitors. The French exhibitors consisted of 4,000 exhibitors 1,000 from the colonies (it was considered strong in art furniture, china and glass and in particular the sensuousness of French sculpture was celebrated). Other figures of exhibitors from Europe show that the Austrian representative consisted of 1,400 exhibitors, and those of Italy at 2,000.

Edmund Walker, 'Interior of the International Exhibition of 1862', 1862, watercolour, 74.5 x 104.6 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1110-1901 © V&A, 2014

Edmund Walker, ‘Interior of the International Exhibition of 1862’, 1862, watercolour, 74.5 x 104.6 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1110-1901 © V&A, 2014

Interior decoration met with mixed reviews and the decoration by Crace was criticised as being too bold in colour. Whilst importations such as ‘tinted marble statues sent by Gibson from Rome’ were also viewed unfavourably. Moreover parts of the interior decoration were obviously unfinished such as ‘the great skeleton of Benson’s unfinished clock’. One of the main failures of the overall design seems to have been the lack of cohesion of style, both inside and out. However, as a military engineer Fowke was not a proponent of either the classical or the modern style but a functional engineer.

In creating a space where it was possible for the masses to experience goods from all over the world, to eat, to listen to music and purchase items the building fulfilled the specification, perhaps as far as was possible. The mixed use of materials enabled it to be produced cost effectively and to be built to schedule. Its later dis-assembly bears testimony to the fact that unlike the Crystal Palace exhibition halls those of 1862 were not regarded as a national treasure, lacking the visual spectacle and aesthetics to impress and enchant. Reminding us of the importance of the visual impression as a key factor within the experience of the exhibition.

Suggested Reading

Dale Dishon, South Kensignton’s Forgotten Palace, ‘The Rise and Fall of the 1862 Exhibition Building’

Kempt, Robert, What do you think of the Exhibition? (London, James Hogg and Sons, 1862

© Suzie Partridge, MA History of Design student, Royal College of Art & Victoria and Albert Museum

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Reception and Reaction: (Un)official Japan at the 1862 Exhibition

The first research post by RCA History of Design students involved in the Memories of the Future exhibition (more information here).


When Japan sent its first official embassy to the west in 1862, they came face to face with an unofficial Japanese court at the International Exhibition. The items on display belonged to Sir Rutherford Alcock, Her Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Japan, an eccentric collector.

One of the primary sources for understanding the public response to the 1862 International Exhibition is the Illustrated London News, which provided detailed descriptions and illustrations of the various national courts. However, what is often lacking in our research is the reaction of those nations to the final displays that were meant to showcase the best of each nation’s arts and sciences to the world—an effective advertisement in an increasingly international world of commerce and cultures. Looking for the other side of the story brings to light interesting and provoking questions about how we see different cultures through Expositions, both in 1862 and today. However this disparity between the appearances of an exhibit; receptions by British newspapers; and reactions by each nations’ own media is particularly apparent when one approaches a small exhibition for a country so exotic and yet so closed off from the consciousness of nineteenth century visitors. In 1862 Japan opened for business, and the London Exhibition provided an excellent stage to display what Japan had to offer to visitors of all ranks and classes.

A bit of context… 1862 Japan had just sent its first Japanese embassy to Europe—the first official contact between Japan and the West. Their progress through Europe was extensively photographed and illustrations of the embassy were included in the Illustrated London News’ May 24th edition (Illustration 1). Located near the doors to the entrance for the Botanical Gardens and a little tucked away from the main nave, the Japan court displayed parasols, ceramics, grooming kits and strange grass hats and jackets—all hanging, slightly haphazardly, around a stall and crammed into display cases (Illustration 2).

(Illustration 1) The International Exhibition of 1862 - The Japanese Embassy at the International Exhibition, from The Illustrated London News, 24 May, 1862. Museum no. NAL. PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Illustration 1) The International Exhibition of 1862 – The Japanese Embassy at the International Exhibition, from The Illustrated London News, 24 May, 1862. Museum no. NAL. PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However the collection was unofficial and belonged primarily to the Englishman Sir Rutherford Alcock, who, besides being Her Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Japan at the time, was an avid collector of all things Japanese. He was notorious for disappearing into odd shops in small villages where he would pick up anything that caught his fancy—from the most expensive to the most vernacular. In his 1863 book, The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in Japan, Alcock praised the Japanese saying ‘I have no hesitation in saying they are not only rival the best products of Europe, but can produce in each of these departments works we can not imitate, or perhaps equal’. The Illustrated London News was equally impressed and fascinated by Alcock’s collection and gave a detailed description of the items on display. However accurate the article, the accompanying illustration of the Japanese Court (Illustration 2) must be taken with a pinch of salt since, though recreated from a photograph, it is an artists impression. In many respects this is a bonus, as an impression provides an editorial view of the Japanese court. The objects are striking and recognisable from their descriptions, and the figures indicate that the display will delight men, women, and children—a universally appealing display. An all round positive British response!

(Illustration 2) The International Exhibition of 1862 - Japanese Court, from The Illustrated London News, 20 September, 1862. Museum no. NAL. PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(Illustration 2) The International Exhibition of 1862 – Japanese Court, from The Illustrated London News, 20 September, 1862. Museum no. NAL. PP.10, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Conversely the Japanese embassy had a complicated reaction. Yukichi Takashima was horrified and claimed Alcock’s goods were ‘inferior to [those of all the other countries’—for him Japan was putting its best on display. Meanwhile Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of the translators for the first Japanese embassy to Europe, reflected that ‘the point of holding expositions is to teach and learn from each other, and to take advantage of each other’s strengths. It is like trading intelligence and ideas’. Clearly the aims and hidden agendas of an International Exhibition had made their mark on the Japanese who visited. Yukichi Fukuzawa saw the benefits and, perhaps naively, the wonderful communication between nations; whilst Yukichi Takashima realised that this was a national advertisement that did not send the message of progress and modernisation that Japan wanted to project. Items such as the grass hats and jackets worn by famers against the rain were embarrassments for the Japanese; while the English saw them as ingenious (if somewhat primitive) vernacular garments. Japan would not officially present at an International Exhibition until five years later in Paris.

These receptions of and reactions to the Japan court indicates the slight of hand performed in the inclusion of an unofficial Japanese display and its official embassy. Japan was a major news story for both its exoticism and the trade relations that were now (if unequally) guaranteed by the London Protocol signed on the 6th of June that year, not quite two weeks after the Illustrated London News published their image of the official embassy. This ‘hot’ news story was revived with the publishing of a description and illustration of the Japan court on the 20th of September. What today might be seen as a public relations coup for Japan was not seen to be one by the official embassy.

Japan in 1862 is merely an early example of the conflicting perceptions from home and abroad. Today the International Exposition is subject to the attention of both traditional and social media. The coverage of the 2015 Milan Expo, where visitors were encouraged to take selfies and use hashtags, when compared to that of coverage in 1862 isn’t too different—enthusiastic enjoyment is contrasted with more critical responses. For now it is Sayōnara but please return to visit1862 for more about an international exhibition that isn’t as unfamiliar as we might assume.

Suggested Readings:

Alcock, Rutherford. The Capital of the Tycoon: A Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in Japan, (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1863)

Foxwell, Chelsea. “Japan as Museum? Encapsulating Change and Loss in Late-Nineteenth-Century Japan’, Getty Research Journal, No 1 (2009), pp 39-52. retrieved

© Melissa Tyler, MA History of Design student, Royal College of Art & Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016

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Expo Futures Research – Introduction

In December 2015 History of Design (HoD) and Information Experience Design (IED) MA students from the Royal College of Art (RCA) collaboratively hosted a one-day exhibition at the Machines Room, London. ‘Memories of the Future’ reflected on the historical culture of great exhibitions and expos in order to consider what the future of expos should, or could look like. (A review of the exhibition has been published on Fig.9 Collective website.)

Memories of the Future Exhibition

Students on the project were specifically encouraged to use the 1862 International Exhibition as a starting point for their research and the editors of Visit1862 joined the teaching team as historical consultants. Additionally, Visit1862 has become a complimentary ‘exhibition’ space, hosting written reflections on the process of researching and creating ‘Memories of the Future’. Of particular interest is the HoD students’ collaborative post reflecting on working with design students to collectively research and curate knowledge (see here).

Memories of the Future Exhibition

Over the next couple of weeks Visit1862 will be hosting a series of individual posts written by HoD students based on the research they carried out at the very beginning of this project. Each post reflects on a specific aspect of the 1862 and other historical exhibitions from a range of methodological perspectives. Therefore, the posts both demonstrate the historical research that the final exhibition was grounded on and are interesting contributions to Visit1862’s research aims in their own right.

The editors of Visit1862 would like to extend their thanks to Sarah Teasley, Justine Boussard and the RCA HoD team for inviting us to participate in this project. We very much enjoyed the opportunity to contribute to this collaborative process. More importantly, thanks must also be given to all the students who were involved in the project particularly the six HoD students whose work we’ll be sharing over the next few weeks.

© Ruth Slatter, 2016

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Expo Futures – Memories of the Future – Student Reflections

Over the last 5 weeks the editors of visit1862 have been working with Informational Experience Design (IED) and History of Design (HoD) MA students from the Royal College of Art as they have been developing an exhibition about the future of international exhibitions. Today’s post is the first of many contributions that the HoD students working on the project are going to make to In the new year each student will share some of their research findings. But today their post reflects on the project and the processes of research, concept development and exhibition design they have been involved in.

Exhibition logoMEMORIES OF THE FUTURE is an exhibition by the Royal College of Art’s Information Experience Design (IED) and the History of Design MAs. The exhibition looks at the contemporary international exposition through the lens of the ‘forgotten’ International Exhibition of 1862. By subverting historic designs and highlighting the importance of ‘expo mechanics’, the exhibition speculates on the role of human intervention with design and problematises our interactions with these ever changing technologies.

The History of Design team took various approaches to the historical side of the exhibition. We initially focused on various aspect of the 1862 exhibition including the political-historical context of Prussia and Austria’s exhibition space; the chess subculture and conversation around the International Chess Tournament of 1862, that took place at the same time as the International Exhibition; the British media coverage of the Japan Courts and the Japanese response to the exhibition; and national identity as it related to wrought and cast iron.

The historical background we provided served as a springboard for the exhibition concept and content. The result are six installations that address issues of evolving soundscapes in an increasingly mechanised world; the current desire to photograph every aspect of our lives; problems of private space in public toilets; a game of chess as a critique of the rigidity of the existing seemingly open and democratic Expo structure; knowing the future through old technologies; and the exposition guide as both a rarified object and a tool for creating experiences.

As design historians we have each had our unique experiences with the project and below are a few of those thoughts:

Nina Bangerh

Working on a collaborative project is exciting because we are constantly learning from each other and utilising information in different ways.

I come from a design background; therefore I am always inspired by the past, and interested to see how this can be visually tailored to suit the present and even the future. As a Design Historian my aim is to create a wider and better understanding by analysing, critiquing and discovering information by fixating on the past.

In this particular collaboration, my role was to seek information about the history, experience and aesthetic of the toilet, an everyday luxury. Before encountering a historical reference, as a group we looked at contemporary examples of toilet related exhibitions and understood that sanitation is a key agenda. Then by looking for information around sanitation, via the floor plan and experiences recorded of 1862 International Exhibition, I was able to explore other avenues such as class, gender and what it meant to use the toilet.

Melissa Tyler

My background in anthropology and interior design provides me with an interest in the way people interact with space and objects so this project really excited me. However what I didn’t expect was how quickly the IED students took the historical aspect into consideration. My group was focused on creating the exhibition guide and one of the first things we discussed was the physicality of the guide itself. How big was it? What did it cost? But those questions soon took a back seat to questions about the kind of content the guide revealed and how we would like to explore that in the guide we were creating. By exploring the successes and the drawbacks of the 1862 guide we were better able to craft the look and the content for our 2015 guide. A nice bonus was discovering in the 1862 guide a critique of the 1851 Great Exhibition guide.

Katie Vann

Before settling on a topic with my group, I had initially researched the objects on display in the Austrian and Prussian courts in the 1862 Exhibition catalogue. Inspired the array of musical instruments on display, our group decided to create soundscapes for the final installation. After learning from the London Illustrated News and the visit1862 website that umbrellas were officially banned on the premises of the Exhibition, we reimagined how as disputed objects, umbrellas could become time vessels capable of transporting visitors back to the past. If anything, it was very insightful learning that creative inspiration can come from unusual or unexpected places. As a historian, I also checked the historical accuracy of the sound sources used in the umbrellas soundscapes.

As students of design history, we research the manufacture, use and contexts of consumption for designed objects. This collaborative project gave us the opportunity to reimagine history with living designers and to learn about the value that historical research has in making the past tangible for designers.

Suzie Partridge

Joining the team from a professional background combining contemporary art curating and antiques, along with a history in dance, I was keen to learn and experience new approaches by taking part in the project. Starting with an exploding view of the Exposition, History of Design students bought our conceptual thinking into play whilst IED critiqued the Milan Expo and picked out some key themes to shape the project.

Working on researching the sensory theme within the 1862 exhibition was challenging and from the press reviews remaining I was able to build a picture of the visual and felt experience focusing on the exhibition building and the crowd as an entity in itself.

Turning to the concept of photography I was excited to hear of the planned installation piece including a sculptural recreation of Sutton’s panoramic camera and video refraction of the live audience, combining past, present and future in a re-imagining of photography as a medium for temporal exploration.

Natalia Goldchteine

My background is in art history and more recently in practical exhibition development and management. I am interested in exploring various aspects of an exhibition as a mode of interaction, cultural development and visualisation.

As a historical reference my group and I decided to focus on the International Chess Tournament that took place in London parallel to the International Exhibition of 1862. It was the second time that such a Tournament was held (the first took place during the 1851 Great Exhibition) included 14 participants and lasted just over two weeks. Initial research revealed an emerging chess subculture and a highly interactive community that partially gather around the tournament but mostly interacted through letters, newspapers and specialised magazines.

Free interaction via such a seemingly democratic medium as print periodicals got us thinking about the limitations and restrictions inherent in the game of chess. With the piece presented in the Memories of the Future exhibition we raise the question of rules and boundaries present in the structure of the modern Expo, inviting viewers to play a game of chess and, perhaps, make up their own rules.

Oyin Akande

First called the Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct, the Tempest Prognosticator used leeches to predict approaching weather disturbances. The accuracy of the machine is outstanding both for its noted reliability and the neglect it has received since its exhibition.

Our group wanted to create a narrative around our replica that made it the direct descendant of the original. We envisioned a place for this forsaken object in a society that is increasingly curious about animal instinct. The machine prompts some of the same questions it did in its original historical context: what is the value of animal instinct?

However, the machine we’ve created is no longer just a weather forecasting device but a grand, omniscient predictor of the future. As well as speculating on the potential of animal instinct, we wanted to comment on the nature of the promise of expos, thus asking what is really shown or valued, the spectacle or the innovation. The collaboration was an outstanding look at the past, present and future but the speculative narrative itself was incredibly creative as it required fabricating a history as well.

With thanks to the RCA/V&A History of Design students.

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Expo Futures: Week 3

Today was the third week of this collaborative project between students from the Information Experience Design (IED) and History of Design (HoD) MA courses at the Royal College of Arts and visit1862. Bringing designers and historians together to discuss how expos might develop in the future, this project is demonstrating what design history is by taking it beyond the confines of studies of particular historical moments and demonstrating what it can contribute to broader discussions.

Umbrellas Expo Futures Week 3

This project is going to culminate in an exhibition at the Machines Gallery on Thursday 17th December 2015, and this morning students from both courses collectively presented their unifying concept for the exhibition and, in small groups, shared proposals for exhibits, instillations and interactive guide books that will be shown at the exhibition. Each small group is comprised of a mixture of IED and HoD students and both the overarching exhibition concept and the individual exhibition ideas a driven by reflections on historical practices, particularly the example of the 1862 International Exhibition.

Chess Expo Futures Week 3

In order to consider how expos might be developed in the future, the students have decided to use memories and experiences of past exhibitions, particularly the 1862 International Exhibition, to reflect on how future generations may experience expos. Each group has chosen a historical event or object to help inspire reflections on future exhibition experiences. Ranging from guide books to toilets, umbrellas to tempest prognosticators and chess matches to images these objects and instances have largely been chosen because they provide useful tools for thinking about how the 1862 and other historical international exhibitions were experienced. These objects and moments will play key roles in the resulting exhibition that will reflect on the past, present and future of expo practices.

Students have another three weeks to further develop these ideas and get them ready for the exhibition. We think this will be a really interesting event that will not only spark questions about expo futures, but, exactly like the process itself, will also demand further consideration of the role of design historians within contemporary design dialogues.

© Ruth Slatter, 2015

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Expo Futures: Week 2

Yesterday marked the second week of the collaborative Expo Futures project. Drawing together students from the RCA’s Information Experience Design (IED) and History of Design (HoD) courses and the editors of Visit1862 this project is an exploration of potential directions that International Exhibitions could be taken in the future. The project will culminate in an exhibition on the 17th December and a number of posts on Visit1862 in the New Year.

Expo Futures Seminar 2

Yesterday’s seminar was held in the Machines Gallery, the space that will host our exhibition. Part of the of the Maker Space, Fixperts and Maker Library networks, this space provides an exciting opportunity for students to conceive, design and construct their exhibition.

IMG_6526 2

The seminar provided students from IED and HoD the opportunity to share the research that they had carried out over the previous weeks around the six themes they had collectively identified:

  • Context
  • Agenda
  • Sensory Experience
  • Digital/Physical
  • Global
  • Global/Local

The HoD students presented research they had carried out into the International courts at the 1862 International Exhibition. The IED students presented ideas and warnings of good and bad design ideas that they had seen in previous international exhibitions and used these presidents to begin to suggest potential future design practices.

Expos Futures Seminar 2

It very quickly became apparent that there were a plethora of comparative points that had be drawn out by both sets of students and that many lines of connection could be drawn between the six themes that they had explored. Some of the most interesting themes included:

  • The permanency or ephemerality of exhibitions: how long their physical structure was intended to last when they were built and how long they actually did last and why.
  • Unintended design consequences.
  • The expected/unexpected/designed/unforeseen influence of ‘the crowd’ on the design of the exhibition space.
  • How objects were used to make international statements, often ignoring the more international stories behind their production processes.

Expos Futures Seminar 2

These conversations will now be continued over the next week as IED and HoD students begin to work directly together to further shape developing ideas about the futures of international exhibitions. Back in the exhibition space next Thursday, it will be interesting to see how the seeds of ideas have developed and exciting to begin to discuss how this material could be coherently displayed.

Look out for more news next week.

© Ruth Slatter, 2015

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Expo Futures

The editors of visit1862 are very excited to be collaborating with the History of Design and Information Experience Design MA courses at the Royal College of Art on a five-week project entitled Expo Futures.

Brain storming on the 12th November 2015 for EXPOs Futures project at the RCA

Brain storming on the 12th November 2015 for EXPOs Futures project at the RCA

The project is bringing designers and historians together to critically analyse exhibition cultures and explore potential future directions for international expos. While many of the IED students have recently visited the Milan Expo to inspire their thoughts and criticisms of expo practices, the History of Design students are carrying out research into international contributions to the 1862 International Exhibition. This research will therefore both form a critical framework for the designers as they engage with contemporary exhibitionary practices and contribute to visit1862’s on going research.

Brain storming themes to explore in the EXPOs Futures Project, RCA 12th November 2015

Brain storming themes to explore in the EXPOs Futures Project, RCA 12th November 2015

After yesterday’s fascinating brainstorming session, the students have collectively identified six themes that will form the basis of their subsequent research:

  • The context in which expos function in
  • The agenda behind expos
  • The global character of expos
  • The tension between the global and local in expo practices
  • The tension between the digital and physical aspects of expos
  • The sensory experience of expos

These themes will direct next week’s student presentations and subsequent discussions about the progressions of expos, their potentials, problems and pit-falls.

More ideas for the EXPO Futures Project, RCA 12th November 2015

More ideas for the EXPO Futures Project, RCA 12th November 2015

We are very excited about the ideas that are already developing in this project and cannot wait to engage with physical outputs created by the students. The IED and HoD students are going to collaboratively create and curate a one-day exhibition at the end of term based on the research they are carrying out in the first half of the project. While, the HoD students are also going to make contributions to visit1862 based on their research. As visit1862 has always been a collaborative project, we are very grateful to the students for taking on an area of research that we have, as of yet, been able to tackle with any serious intention.

Keep your eyes peeled for further developments.

© Ruth Slatter, 2015

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‘Becoming’ The Albert Memorial

Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

All the way back in December 2013, the editors of Visit1862 mused on the possibilities of considering the 1862 International Exhibition as an ‘object obituary’ to Prince Albert, the late husband of Queen Victoria: RIP Prince Albert.

Almost two whole years later, this post is finally going to consider the more overt physical obituary that was erected in Albert’s memory: The Albert Memorial.

Mayall, Portrait of Prince Albert, early 1850s, Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, 44:340 © V&A, 2013

Mayall, Portrait of Prince Albert, early 1850s, Photograph. Victoria and Albert Museum, 44:340 © V&A, 2013

Prince Albert died on the 14th December 1861, only months before the 1862 International Exhibition opened. At the 1851 Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, Albert had been an important supporter and the Royal family’s endorsement of the exhibition had played a significant role in its success. By contrast, both Albert and his grieving wife were notably absent from the 1862 exhibition and some historians have argued that their absence contributed to the relative ‘failure’ of the event. Therefore, although not physically present at the time of the 1862 International Exhibition, the memorial is part of the exhibition’s legacy and is one of the most prominent expressions of contemporary South Kensington’s Victorian heritage.


The memorial was a public initiative intended to permanently mark Albert’s contributions to British culture and politics, while also demonstrate to the Queen that there was considerable public appreciation for her late husband, even if that hadn’t always been clear during his lifetime. The memorial was therefore paid for through a combination of public subscriptions and government money. Located at the northerly tip of South Kensington, opposite the subsequently constructed Royal Albert Hall, the memorial was conceived in January 1862, but was not ‘completed’ until 1876.

Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Arguably, however, the memorial was, and still is, in a constant state of becoming and was therefore never entirely ‘complete’ or ‘finished’. Most notably explored by the anthropologist Tim Ingold, material culture studies have recently become very interested in the ‘becoming’ and ever-changing character of material things. Using these ideas, the rest of this post will investigate the becoming nature of the Albert Memorial in three ways. Firstly it was consider how the memorial has been in a constant process of material flux. Secondly it will ask how it has gained a whole range of different meanings and connotations. While finally, it will think about the different ways in which it has been physically related to by visitors during its 150 years.

Material Flux

Although all the parts of the Albert memorial were in position by 1876, the material character of the memorial has regularly changed in the subsequent years, helping to demonstrate how the building was in a state of becoming.

The Albert memorial was made out of a whole range of different materials, including iron, Campenella marble, gold, glass, brick and bronze.

Royal Albert Hall from the Sculptural frieze around the Albert Memorial showing famous sculptors, © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Royal Albert Hall from the Sculptural frieze around the Albert Memorial showing famous sculptors,
© Ruth Slatter, 2015

Some of these materials were specifically chosen for their durability, due to fears about the affects of London’s polluted air on the monument’s material stability. Both the sculptural groups on the four corners of the memorial and the sculptural frieze running underneath Albert’s sculpture were made out of Campenella marble, renowned for being a particularly hard stone. However, although this made the marble very difficult for the sculptors to work with, the sculptures still fell prey to polluted decay and discolouring and had to be heavily restored in the 1980s.

Albert Memorial, allegorical sculpture of America, © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Albert Memorial, allegorical sculpture of America, © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Other materials used for their structural properties have also required maintenance and material rehabilitation during the memorial’s life. Almost as soon as the memorial was constructed, water began to seep into the canopy above Prince Albert’s head. The structure, supported by cast iron girders chosen for their structural strength, began to function as a water cistern, the girders began to rust and the canopy expanded. Water began to drip out from the canopy onto the stone sculptures, further contributing to their discolouring and eventually in 1983 a large piece of lead cornice from the canopy was found on the memorial’s steps as the material decay began to have a fundamental influence on its structural stability.

However, it is not only the material qualities of the memorial’s components that have resulted in its material changes. The memorial has also been heavily affected by the events that have happened around it. During the Second World War the cross on top of the memorial was hit by enemy fire and during the First World War, the sculpture of Albert himself was stripped of its gold leafing, apparently in order to prevent it glinting in the light of German planes and give away London’s location.

What is most interesting about these material alterations, is not necessarily what they demonstrate about the material becoming of the memorial, but how ideas and opinions about the memorial have changed over time.

Changing Meanings

Albert Memorial Clock, Belfast, © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Albert Memorial Clock, Belfast, © Ruth Slatter, 2015

One of many memorials erected in Albert’s memory across the country, seven architects were asked to submit designs for London’s Albert memorial. From these seven, only one design utilised the contemporarily fashionable Gothic revival style, but it was this one entry, design by Gilbert Scott, that was chosen by the judging committee. Scott was well known for his Gothic style and was already working with Queen Victoria on the design for a memorial chapel for Prince Albert at Windsor Castle in the same style. However, despite mid-century enthusiasm for the Gothic revival, the style quickly fell out of favour and the Albert memorial became a painfully prominent reminder of high Victorian taste.


Consequently, despite early enthusiasm for the memorial, the structure was subsequently viewed with distain and distaste throughout the majority of the twentieth century. No attempts were made to repair the broken cross on the top of the memorial until well into the 1950s (and even then the replacement cross was installed at the wrong orientation). While the First World War probably gave the government a ‘golden’ opportunity to strip Albert of his gaudy sheen that had long gone out of fashion.

So disdainful were perceptions of the Albert memorial, that little or no material maintenance was carried out on the structure well into the 1980s, giving the impression that everyone just wished that it would dissolve and no longer be a blemish on London’s landscape! However, in 1983 something miraculous happened. The piece of lead cornice found on the memorial’s steps sparked a revival in the memorial’s popularity and a campaign run by English Heritage, The Victorian Society and the Evening Standard to ‘Save Albert’. Resulting in a £14 million restoration project that has restored Albert and his surrounding entourage to its former glory, the memorial has regained its position within the public imagination and is once again a ‘must-see’ on the tourist map.

Evolving Interaction

Visitors entering beyond the gates of the Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Visitors entering beyond the gates of the Albert Memorial
© Ruth Slatter, 2015

The Albert memorial’s re-appropriation within the ‘tourist canon’ leads us nicely to our final point about the structure’s ‘becoming character’: the changing physical relationships visitors have had with the memorial over time.

When the memorial was first opened, visitors could pay a small fee for a guided tour around the memorial, explaining its sculptural groups and their allegorical meanings. Saturated with imperialism and cultural arrogance, the memorial was intended to be an educational tool about Britain’s superiority as well as a token of respect to Prince Albert.


Contemporary tour guide talking visitors through the artists on the frieze of the Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

Contemporary tour guide talking visitors through the artists on the frieze of the Albert Memorial © Ruth Slatter, 2015

However, as the memorial declined in popularity, its steps were more likely to be filled with picnickers who were able to proceed beyond the railings surrounding the memorial and get close and personal with the Prince himself. Since the memorial’s refurbishment the gold gilt gates that surround the memorial have been largely closed to public, access beyond them restricted to guided tours only.Creating a sense of owe and wonder about the golden sculpture of Albert and a sense of privilege when let in behind these gates, this present arrangement not only helps to preserve the material qualities of the memorial but also results in a particular physical interaction between the memorial and its visitors, contributing to how they think and feel about it.

The Albert Memorial is therefore a material thing that is in a constant state of becoming. It’s material qualities have changed and evolved (for better and worse) over time. It has had a range of different meanings in different cultural contexts and has been related to by decades of visitors in many different ways. Not always a popular member of London’s architectural family, it is definitely worth a visit regardless of personal taste or political opinion.

Recommended Reading

Brooks, Chris, The Albert Memorial (English Heritage, 1995)

Ingold, Tim, ‘Towards an Ecology of Materials’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41 (2012), pp.427-42


© Ruth Slatter, 2015

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