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Watch back: Celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Great Industrial Exhibition of Dublin

An initiative of the Royal Irish Academy’s Historical Studies Committee, consisting of a collaborative exhibition, plenary session and conference in collaboration with the RDS, and the National Gallery of Ireland across the month of November 2023.

2023 marked the 170th anniversary of the Great Industrial Exhibition held in Dublin on the grounds of Leinster House, then the headquarters of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). Modelled on London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, it featured a huge iron and glass pavilion fronting onto Merrion Square measuring 300 feet long. It was the largest event of its kind ever held in Ireland, showcasing Irish art, manufacture and industry to the world, attracting over 1 million visitors. There were over 1,800 exhibitors from Britain, Ireland and worldwide. In celebration of this anniversary, the RIA, in collaboration with the RDS and the National Gallery of Ireland, held an exhibition, plenary session, and conference.

Plenary lecture ‘Spectacular gestures’: Great Exhibitions and Great Museums in London and Dublin.’

Dr Tristram Hunt, Director, Victoria and Albert Museum

On the 23rd of November 2023, Dr Tristram Hunt delivered a plenary lecture at the National Gallery of Ireland on “Great Exhibitions and Great Museums in London and Dublin”, ahead of the conference celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Great Industrial Exhibition of Dublin the following day.

Dr Tristram Hunt is Director of the V&A the world’s leading museum of art, design and performance. Since taking up the post in 2017, he has championed design education in UK schools, encouraged debate around the history of the museum’s global collections and overseen the transition to a multi-site museum, with the opening of V&A Dundee, the creation of Young V&A (formerly V&A Museum of Childhood), and the development of V&A East a new museum and open access collections centre in Stratford, East London.

Art & Industry: The role of the RDS in the organisation of the Dublin Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853.’

Cora McDonagh, Project Researcher for the RDS Library and Archives and PhD candidate at Maynooth University.

Abstract: This paper will explore the role of the RDS in the organisation of the 1853 Great Industrial Exhibition. Through an examination of the Committee of Manufactures records from June 1852, it will highlight how quickly plans were in motion for designing the building and securing exhibits of art and industry. It will trace negotiations between the sole financier of the exhibition, William Dargan, and the various RDS committees as they prepared for the opening of the exhibition. Finally, it will examine the lectures and demonstrations held during the exhibition by the RDS, as they supported the promotion of Irish industry.

The design and architecture of the exhibition pavilion.’

Andrew Tierney, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Trinity College Dublin.

Abstract: Its central hall hailed as ‘the finest apartment ever erected’, the Dublin exhibition building was one of the great spectacles of its time. Constructed with remarkable speed and efficiency, John Benson’s laminated timber ribs created a soaring roof of round arches, projecting into magnificent bows at each end, which astonished visitors to the exhibition. This paper examines the surviving sources for the building’s architecture and attempts to visualize some of its key features, while also discussing the technical challenges inherent in its design. Raised under the glare of press scrutiny, the building’s execution was itself a spectacle, involving an extensive workforce and the rapid fabrication of great quantities of wood, iron, and glass.

‘Dublin Exhibition 1853: marketing souvenirs and ephemera’.

Lynda Mulvin, School of Art History and Cultural Policy, University College Dublin

Abstract: The Great Industrial Exhibition was situated in Leinster Lawn, Dublin, 12 May-31 October 1853. it was organised to promote industrial collaboration and expand trade connections from Ireland at the crossroads of art and design. The Expositor newspaper, published weekly onsite, campaigned and advertised events for the Exhibition. Souvenir makers perfected the art of serial production to supply the Great Exhibitions of London 1851 and Dublin 1853, as sources for expanding markets. A black papier mâché box by Jennens & Betteridge, Makers to the Queen, is at the centre of this contribution, which examines commemorative medals, souvenirs and ephemera advocating the Irish Industrial Exhibition 1853 and commodity culture.

‘A Great Industrial Exhibition in the Shadow of a Great Famine.’

Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of History, Queen’s University Belfast.

Abstract: There is something of a shock value to the timing of the 1853 Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin. The famine of the later 1840s had resulted in the abnormal death of about one million women, men and children, while emigration had denuded Ireland of another one million inhabitants. Some parts of the country, particularly in the West of Ireland, had barely begun to recover from the ravages of that catastrophe.

So why an industrial exhibition, great or otherwise, against this backdrop? Might one think of the venture as a giant folly, in the sense of structures, temples, towers and other decorative creations that adorned landed estates in England and Ireland in the period? Or, more constructively, might the holding of the exhibition be seen as a defiant cry against the forces of nature and poverty, with the longer-term vision of creating a more prosperous future for Ireland and its peoples?

Modelled on the Great Exhibition in London two years earlier, the Dublin Exhibition sought to showcase examples of Irish industry and arts, while also securing exhibits from other countries. The comparison is not a favourable one, yet the thrust of this paper is that the Dublin Exhibition tells us much about Irish society at the time, its class nature, its anxieties and its aspirations.

‘Manufacturing companies in Ireland in 1853.’

Frank Barry, Professor of International Business & Economic Development, Trinity College Dublin.

Abstract: The Industrial Revolution was associated with the rise and spread of the factory system, the decline of cottage industries and the emergence of new types of firms, with certain industries affected more rapidly and more dramatically than others. The consequences for much of Ulster and the rest of Ireland proved very different. The present paper seeks to identify the largest manufacturing firms of recent and earlier vintages in the three southern provinces at the time of the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853.

The 1853 Exhibition and the rise of consumer culture in nineteenth century Ireland.’

Stephanie Rains, Department of Media Studies, Maynooth University. ‘The 1853 Exhibition and the rise of consumer culture in nineteenth century Ireland.’

Abstract: This paper will discuss the ways in which the 1853 Exhibition influenced and was influenced by the newly established department stores in Dublin. It will argue that although one of the central aims of the Exhibition was to stimulate industrial production in Ireland, it was actually more influential in encouraging consumption. In this sense, the 1853 Exhibition – held in the same year that the city’s first purpose-built department store opened on Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) – contributed to the development of consumer culture in Ireland, by providing remarkably similar architectural and cultural spaces in which the middle-classes could admire mass-produced goods.

‘The Irish nation and the British Empire: display at the 1853 Exhibition.’

Fintan Cullen, Professor Emeritus in the History of Art, University of Nottingham.

Abstract: The central theme of this paper is an examination of the tensions between a growing Irish nationalism and seeing the 1853 Exhibition as a celebration of Ireland’s place in the British Empire. Beginning with a description of what one saw on visiting the Exhibition on Leinster Lawn: from the abundance of flags, banners, statuary, portraiture and music, the talk will go on to explore the juxtapositions of portraits of Irish personalities such as Daniel O’Connell and innumerable images of royalty. The positive hopes and expectations placed on the Exhibition will be compared with the imperial legacy of the whole affair.

‘Sculpture at the 1853 Exhibition.’

Paula Murphy, School of Art History and Cultural Policy, University College Dublin.

Abstract: Sculpture was a feature of the Dublin Exhibition of 1853. Included in the Fine Art Court along with painting, it was also distributed throughout the exhibition building, where the whiteness of the marble or plaster made the sculptures especially visible. A contemporary art journal noted that, while work by the most renowned artists in Europe was included in the exhibition, ‘the leading and most meritorious of the sculptors are Irishmen’. As might be expected, an essay on Sculpture in the Exhibition catalogue came to the same conclusion. Highlighting Belfast sculptor Patrick MacDowell’s ‘Eve’, which had a place of honour in the Exhibition Hall, and contrasting it with the more widely famous ‘Greek Slave’ by American sculptor Hiram Powers (shown in copy at the exhibition), the essay gave lengthy consideration to questioning the propriety of the nude figure in modern art. This paper will explore the range of sculpture at the exhibition and what, if any, was its impact.

‘ ‘Arising from her ashes’: Ireland, Ambition and the Great Industrial Exhibition, Dublin 1853.’

Elizabeth Crooke, Professor of Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Ulster.

Abstract: In June 1853 Thomas Connolly, Bishop of St John’s, New Brunswick wrote enthusiastically about the Art and Industrial exhibition in Dublin. He described a vision of Ireland ‘arising from her ashes’, a moment when the visitor could imagine a new Ireland. This paper explores exhibitions and museums as places of reinvention: reimagining the nation and elevating its people. Using Irish newspaper sources, This paper will explore how the Art and Industrial exhibition was framed as a place to forge a new Ireland after the devastation of the famine and reflect upon how we continue to see museums as places of transformation.

‘ ‘A truthfulness that completely defies competition’: photography, collections and the Great Exhibition of 1853.’

Orla Fitzpatrick, Ireland’s Border Culture Research Fellow, Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin.

Abstract: This paper will examine the role played by photography in recording the 1853 Great Industrial exhibition, tracing its subsequent use by Irish museums. Photography was heralded by W.K. Sullivan in John Sproule’s guide to the exhibition as ‘a boon to the antiquary,’ noting that ‘everything may be copied with a truthfulness that completely defies competition.’ The showcasing of the medium, which, at only fourteen years’ old, undoubtedly paved the way for its subsequent adoption by cultural institutions. Less than a year later, in March 1854, at a meeting of the Academy, the Rev. Charles Graves displayed calotype photographs of Irish antiquities by Edward King Tension (an exhibitor in 1853) and also announced that the Academy had purchased a camera with the intention of creating illustrated catalogues of its collections.

‘Great exhibitions in Ireland and their influence on Irish crafts and design.’

Muireann Charleton, Design Lecturer, Atlantic University, Sligo.

Abstract: Exhibitions of Irish design are central to our understanding of the history of Irish design. Notions of improving taste and generating design awareness among the Irish offers a continuity in the period since the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853. Through design exhibitions there was a desire to foster value in the economic opportunity of Irish-made goods and to utilise traditional materials and processes. This paper explores a tension between displaying existing traditional forms of hand-crafted making and the push for industrial progress in exhibitions of Irish industry from the 1853 Great Industrial Exhibition to the present day.