To See and Be Seen: The Allure of the Crowd at Nineteenth-century International Exhibitions

Spooner, R. (2016) To See and Be Seen: The Allure of the Crowd at Nineteenth-century International Exhibitions. The Global City: Past and Present, London, UK, 26-27 May 2016.

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Abstract

In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation Mary Louise Pratt outlines her understanding of "contact zones", maintaining they are "social spaces where disparate cultures melt, clash, and grapple with each other" (1992: 4). While Pratt focuses on the portrayal of such spaces in travel writing, examining how textual accounts produced varied imperial, colonial and post-colonial subjectivities, her concept is easily applicable to topics that share an interest in how cultures and societies negotiated one another within the framework of the British Empire. But do contact zones only ever materialise on the colonial frontier as Pratt suggests, an assessment that renders the two largely synonymous? If much European travel writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth century prompted a congruence between the two, repeatedly locating contact zones in far-off locales, other cultural forms of the period suggest otherwise. Aimed at showcasing the world in miniature, International Exhibitions for instance demonstrate that major imperial cities were just as capable of being sites of interaction as colonial peripheries. Varied and dynamic in their form and content, in the late-nineteenth century these immensely popular events sprung up in cities all over the world. Described by historian Paul Greenhalgh as the "extraordinary cultural spawn of industry and empire" (1988: 2), International Exhibitions served as platforms for the display of objects, the movement of people and the dissemination of ideas. Offered for inclusion in the third workshop organised by the Global Cities research network, the paper outlined here begins from the proposition that International Exhibitions functioned as contact zones despite often being embedded in metropolitan centres. Departing from much of the existing scholarship on exhibitions, however, the paper takes as its focus not the undisputed heart of the British Empire but its so-called 'Second City'. Between 1888 and 1938 Glasgow hosted four of the largest, best attended and most profitable exhibitions ever mounted in Britain, surpassed in size only by some of London's bigger shows. By the time of its first International Exhibition Glasgow was a densely populated and heavily industrial city. With a population that would grow ten-fold between 1801 and 1911, it was "a melting pot of peoples, with the grandest of architecture and the poorest of housing standards" (Mackenzie 1999: 218). An often-made claim was that International Exhibitions assembled the entirety of human civilisation, presenting a condensed and static version of it for the brief six months they were open. Promoting itself as an exhibition of the works of industry of all nations, the Great Exhibition of 1851 established this convention, which remained a key characteristic of the International Exhibition throughout the period it was a popular cultural form. Thus, the visitor's experience was routinely framed as a voyage across continents or a journey through the ages. Through their visual and material culture, International Exhibitions promoted a sense of crossing boundaries and traversing thresholds, thus making notions of travel and escape essential components of the epistemological framework of this exhibitionary paradigm. As a result, the world of the exhibition routinely juxtaposed the city beyond its gates. The paper proposed here will examine how this discourse was manifested at Glasgow's International Exhibitions, and suggest this was a particularly pressing concern in Glasgow given the city's social and economic character. Devoid of soot and smog, disease and poverty, the ideal environs of the exhibition were a tonic to city life. They were spaces where visitors could physically and imaginatively escape, however briefly, their everyday surroundings and the often-harsh realities that typified life in Glasgow around the turn of the twentieth century. Of equal interest are the physical and rhetorical structures that conditioned visitors' behaviour inside the ideal city of the exhibition. Drawing on Bennett's notion of the exhibitionary complex, the proposed paper will reflect on themes of social observation and surveillance, and through exploring the notion of seeing and being seen will consider the crowd's place as an object of intrigue and source of spectacle. Conceptualising the International Exhibition as a contact zone, the proposed paper will analyse how Glasgow's exhibitions functioned as idealised gathering places where varying regional, national, colonial and imperial identities were negotiated.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item
Keywords:International World's Fairs, empire, cities, globality, crowds and power, spectacle.
Status:Published
Refereed:Yes
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Spooner, Dr Rosie
Authors: Spooner, R.
Subjects:A General Works > AM Museums (General). Collectors and collecting (General)
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
J Political Science > JV Colonies and colonization. Emigration and immigration. International migration
N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
College/School:College of Arts > School of Humanities > Information Studies
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