[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]

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he last decade or so has seen a boom in work on the Great Exhibition. Landmark studies on the subject by both John Davis and Jeffrey Auerbach were published in 1999, and Peter Hoffenberg's work on exhibition culture and imperialism, An Empire on Display, came out in 2001. A number of major anthologies have emerged as well: Louise Purbrick's The Great Exhibition of 1851 (2001); Victorian Prism [review], edited by James Buzard, Joseph Childers, and Eileen Gillooly (2007); and Jeffrey Auerbach's Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (2008). Two different impulses within Victorian studies help to account for this new crop of Exhibition analyses. The first is the desire to complicate the hermeneutic suspicion of earlier criticism and thus to resist the reading of the Exhibition as an expression of British hegemony. As Paul Young points out, recent work on the Exhibition strives instead to show how many contradictions split the vision enshrined in the Crystal Palace: its multiple significations were torn between the view from above and that from below, between regional, national and international arenas, between science and art and between entertainment and education. The second critical thread discernible across recent works on the Exhibition is an interest in the relations among, to borrow Auerbach's formulation, "Britain, the Empire, and the World." The questions many critics raise today—questions about nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, imperialism and globalization—prompt us to see the Great Exhibition anew as one of the era's most densely symbolic public statements about how Britain saw its relation to the rest of the world.

Holding its own among all these recent, noteworthy publications, Young's book links the Exhibition directly, specifically, and thoroughly to globalization and its attendant ideologies: a framework that previous works have touched upon but not explored at length. As Young demonstrates, globalization is an indispensable term for the Exhibition, not least because it makes room for other geographical paradigms while stressing the primacy of economic rationales and philosophies to Victorian understandings of the event. This book sheds new light on Victorian discourses of cosmopolitanism, nationalism and imperialism by showing how closely they attended the global fantasy of homos economicus displayed by the Exhibition. Thus, while Young recognizes the tensions and contradictions that underlay the Great Exhibition, he also uses the paradigm of globalization to re-affirm its hegemonic power. For Young, the Exhibition epitomized what he calls "the Victorian new world order": a capitalist grand narrative of an integrated global economy that was "capacious and cogent enough to enable those with a range of political leanings, social backgrounds and cultural influences to embrace and elaborate it" (6). For Young, then, the Exhibition was a pivotal event in the history of globalization and one key to understanding the ideologies and ontology of a capitalist world market to this day. In this light, Young seeks not so much to critique what others have said about the Great Exhibition as to re-orient their paradigms: to show how globalization both encompasses and makes new sense of them. Rather than taking aim at critics of the Great Exhibition, therefore, Young's book cogently argues that historians of globalization have failed to notice how the Exhibition conceived of global space as such.

To do justice to the complexity of the Exhibition's world picture even while stressing its discursive power from its own moment until our own, Young divides his book into two halves. The first highlights what Young calls the "good story" of the Exhibition—its progressive and self-congratulatory account of a new world order. The second half of the book probes the underside of this story: the fears, anxieties, nationalism, and xenophobia that accompanied the idea of the world as a shared socio-economic space. By insisting on industry as the pinnacle of economic development, Young forcefully argues, the Great Exhibition ratified certain forms of imperial ideology and racism and sowed the seeds of what critics of globalization today call neo-liberalism and neo-imperialism.

This way of organizing the book sometimes raises questions about the chronology of the ideas Young explores. On the one hand, all four of his chapters feature mid-century commentary on the Exhibition; on the other hand, his turn to imperialism and racism in the second half of the book is also a turn to forms of thought more prevalent at the end of the century. While concepts of the diversity of humankind co-existed in 1851 with ideas about its essential diversity, as Young demonstrates, we cannot always tell whether he is making a synchronic or diachronic argument about how the discourse of globalization took shape, especially given his leap to the current moment at the very end of the book. Nonetheless, the "good story/bad story" structure that Young uses to construct his narrative allows him to fully elaborate on the inconsistencies of the Exhibition while showing how they strengthened rather than weakened the arguments for capitalist globalization.

In Chapter One, Young shows how the Great Exhibition generated the idea of a Great Family of Man united through free trade and cosmopolitan sympathy. Contesting George W. Stocking's claim, in Victorian Anthropology (1987), that Victorians insisted on civilizational differences between Europeans and other peoples of the world, Young argues that Adam Smith's model of homos economicus—man's inherent inclination to exchange goods to satisfy his needs—underwrote a concurrent universalist narrative that played a powerful role in the production and reception of the Exhibition. Melding this economic universalism with Christian humanism to challenge polygenetic accounts of racial difference, proponents of free trade read the moment of the Exhibition as a moment of global union that brought the world together as a human family whose economic and spiritual interests were harmoniously aligned.

Chapter Two then shows how the Exhibition's geographical fantasies complemented its anthropological ones. Young sees the event as "a cultural technology for the production of capitalist space" (62); in other words, the spectacle of economic order and rationality inside the Crystal Palace sought to reflect that of the world outside. The Exhibition produced a captivating image of the globe as a modern capitalist arena, ripe for further appropriation and development.

In Chapter Three, Young shows how the benign narrative of the market's invisible but unifying hand was accompanied by the more rapacious ideology of imperial intervention. While the Exhibition purported to make sense of the world, at least in the view of its organizers and supporters, Young shows that many contemporary commentators saw it instead as a spectacle of contradiction and chaos. They were particularly struck by what seemed a developmental gap between East and West: the former, associated with timelessness and tradition, produced a sense of mystical fascination; the latter, associated with progress and power, practiced humdrum utilitarianism. While this opposition seemed to undermine the ideal of a unified world market, it justified intervention, giving British economic vanguardism a new sense of purpose: "particular nations would need to employ their economic rationale and exert their industrial power in order that other lands and their peoples might assume their proper, providential position within an international economy" (98). If Adam Smith's ideal of a global village was not quite upheld by what commentators saw at the Palace, what they chose to see instead was the role Britain needed to play in showing the rest of the world how to make proper use of its "fecund but wasted" (143) resources.

Young's final chapter elaborates on the pernicious consequences of this political-economic mission. Even though the backwardness of non-European countries was posited in Britain before the Great Exhibition, Young contends that the event helped to consolidate the idea of a developed and a developing world and thus the necessity of uneven connections between them: "non-European products and their cultivators had to be reached and networked, which is to say, locked into precise, exacting and uplifting circuits of production and consumption" (162). As in his overall view of the Great Exhibition as a "grand narrative," Young recuperates hermeneutic suspicion in his approach to Victorian racism and imperialism, faulting recent critics who claim that postcolonial scholarship "misrepresents and exaggerates the character and impact of British imperial culture, and in particular that it has placed an undue emphasis upon the conceptualization of racial difference as an ideological condition for imperialism" (184). On the contrary, Young demonstrates that when Victorian commentators thought certain races might be too anachronistic to fit into the spatio-temporality of global modernity, ideas of eradication or extinction reared their ugly heads. Citing George Catlin's display of Indians in the Palace, Young links American notions of Manifest Destiny with the racism of Victorian imperialist ideology. In both nations, Young argues, the price to be paid for the process of globalization as the Exhibition defined it was "the loss of those races unable to respond to the progressive, civilizing climate in which they now found themselves" (194).

This connection between British and American ideology leads nicely into the book's "Postscript," which briefly explains how the U.S. has taken over from Britain both its global leadership and the rhetoric that accompanies it. As Young notes, a post 9/11 speech by George W. Bush uncannily echoes many of the 1851 speeches celebrating the Great Exhibition. But the brevity of the postscript is one of the few disappointing elements of Young's book. To justify his use of twentieth-century terms such as "globalization" and "new world order" to describe Victorian forms of thought, he convincingly draws a straight line from the triumphalism of the Exhibition to that of current champions of globalization such as Francis Fukayama, Niall Ferguson and Bush. Nonetheless, he says nothing about the interim period even in the postscript, where he might have linked the Great Exhibition to other global forms such as the League of Nations, which actually used the term "new world order." The postscript also left me wanting to learn more about the forms that shape our current ideas about globalization. If, as Young argues, the Exhibition endowed globalization with cultural power by making concrete and visible the image of modernity that underwrote it, what are equivalent sources of spatio-temporal cohesion today? Wikipedia? the World Economic Forum? Facebook? While it might be unfair to ask these questions of a book focused on events in 1851, it is only because Young succeeds so well in making that year newly relevant to understandings of our own moment that they arise at all.

Related Material


Young, Paul. Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. x + 249 pp.

Last modified 20 September 2023