Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of 1851 and its legacy

Aerial view of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park 28 May 1851

Lithograph by Charles Burton
Copyright: V&A Images. Museum number: 19614

The story of South Kensington and the Exhibition Road Cultural Quarter truly begins on 1 May 1851, with the opening of the Great Exhibition. The exhibition became a phenomenal success with over six million visitors during its six month run, making a vast profit of £186,000. With this money the surrounding land was purchased and the cultural development of the area began (see the estate plan of c.1862).

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, its full title, was born out of the concern that Britain lacked training in the fields of art and industry. Continental governments offered more support to skilled craftsmen and encouraged industry through regular exhibitions.

The role of Prince Albert and the RSA

The Royal Society for the Encouragements of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) held small, short-term exhibitions in Britain. However, this was without government support, and nothing on the scale of those seen in France and Germany.

In 1849 the RSA sent Matthew Digby Wyatt and Henry Cole to Paris to report on the French National Exhibition; the men returned excited to plan a similar event in London.

Queen Victoria appointed a Royal Commission in January 1850, with her husband Prince Albert as president. Much of the society’s motivation and initiative for the exhibition came from Albert, who was also President of the RSA.

Albert wanted the exhibition to help Britain to compete with other nations in manufacture and to also educate the population. Under the leadership of Albert, with Henry Cole, the exhibition became international in scope. This made the event much more unusual and complicated to organise, but ultimately more successful.

Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851

The Royal Commission is still an active organisation today, working to support Britain’s industry. It continues to invest money in educational projects, offering major awards to scientists and engineers for research, design and development.