Presented by: Janice Li

As the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace opened in 1851, it brought a whirlwind of new commodity culture in Victorian England. It was not limited in the formal exhibition setting but had profound and lasting influence on the subsequent development of museums, galleries, and department stores. The link between exhibitions and the rising dominance of department stores in social lives of Victorians in the second half of the century is particularly remarkable. The architecture, interior, and visual arrangement of the Great Exhibition had a huge impact on department stores’ strategies of aesthetic juxtapositions; by placing a large amount of objects of the same category in glass cases, they introduced a new mode of viewing. Because of the massive space and display available, it branched out to incorporate restaurants, florists, and other services that allow customers, or even, non-customers to mingle and spend time at department stores, a novel social destination. This emergence of new consumption and social space led to changes not only in the commercial world, but also the social dynamics of Britons. The Great Exhibition and department store phenomena are exemplary of 19th century Victorian social culture on its own, but the impact exhibitionary complex had on department store visuals transformed the world of consumption – silently expanding female realm in public space. A lot of existing literature discuss in depth the influence exhibition culture and department store culture in the 19th century respectively, but not much of their connection. I would like to draw attention to the intricate nature of these social inventions, and how they changed a way of social life till today. I will explore the influence Great Exhibition’s architectural and visual culture had on department stores, and how, by the end of the 19th century, it had consequentially altered the pattern of consumerism and reflected changing social structure of Victorian England.

Article © Janice Li