The Opening of the Crystal Palace

Grazia Zaffuto
1854 Art Journal   unpublished
The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, erected as a permanent cultural institution following the closure of the Great Exhibition of 1851, sought to bring direction to the long-standing inadequacies of pedagogy in existing state and philanthropic schools through the establishment of its own 'national school'. The simple teaching method chosen by the Crystal Palace was 'visual education', which constituted a form of moral awakening through sight rather than words. This disciplined mode of looking
more » ... ted solely with the sensual was directed towards working-class visitors in need of moral advancement and was completely separate from the rational mind. 'Visual Education' at the Crystal Palace was centred around the Fine Arts Courts, which were a series of model architectural buildings specifically designed to transform the complex historical theory of civilizations into a coherent visual illustration of the imperial history of nations. Thus the visual lessons of the Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Alhambra, Italian, and Pompeian Courts as well as others, were charged with moral enlightenment and rules of taste. In this article I argue that the conflicting and contradictory interpretations of the Fine Arts Courts in newspapers and periodicals exposed the inadequacies of a mode of learning focusing solely on the visual and that the tension between the moral lessons and the intellectual responses to 'visual education' were shaped by the complexities of existing class hierarchies. Thus, by looking at commentaries in the press, I will show that the aim of educated middle and upper class visitors was not to enter the 'visual education' of the Fine Arts Courts to acquire moral taste, but to mark their own social and intellectual advancement. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham highlights the extent to which Victorian society was characterised by an alternative mode of learning which interconnected with the popularisation of an expanding visual culture but at the same time it also maintained its links with a form of learning that embraced the traditional classical ideal. In theory 'visual education' was a legitimate strategy for democratizing art, for making the manners, habits and customs of past civilizations, of other worlds, seem less strange but in practice the approach reinforced and intensified class divisions. To read the commentaries on the 'visual education' of the Fine Arts Courts at the Crystal Palace in the Victorian press is to see that, in fact, there were two competing kinds of educational visions. Most strikingly, there is a divide between the 'visual education' for less educated working class visitors, who were expected to engage with the artistic beauty of the Courts to conjure sensual and moral feelings. This form of pedagogy had firm links to the issue of working-class radicalism. 1 On the other side 1