A Great Exhibition

Harriet Lamb, Senior Individual Giving Executive in our Development team, writes about the history of the 1851 Great Exhibition. 

Early May marks the anniversary of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (and therefore the origins of both the Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum). 100,000 objects from art to machinery, from all over the world were on display in an enormous purpose built glass structure –  so big that it arched over two of the trees in Hyde Park. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Queen Victoria opening the 1851 Great Exhibition. Image credit: Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

In five and a half months, over six million people visited the exhibition from across the nation to satisfy their interest in the latest innovations and technological and manufacturing marvels of the 1850s.

There was initial concern about the cost of the Great Exhibition and building its giant glass structure, but to everyone’s surprise the exhibition made a profit of £168,000. That’s over £16m in today’s money! This money was put to good use, and following on from the phenomenal success of the Great Exhibition part of the profit was used to set up the South Kensington Museum (pictured below).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner to both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum). Image: Science Museum / SSPL

This museum housed art and science objects in new buildings on a road named after the success of 1851 – Exhibition Road. The collections grew so large that by 1893 both the science and arts collections had their own directors, with the Science Museum officially opening in 1909.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Work on the ‘East Block’, the main Science Museum building. Picture taken in November 1915 from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

It’s amazing to think that an exhibition visited by millions of people more than a century and a half ago is part of the reason the museum is here today. Last year, our 3 million visitors generously donated almost £1m to help us continue bringing the history and future of science to life. If you’d like to support us, find out more here or speak to a member of staff next time you visit.

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