What perceptions of India did the Great Exhibition of 1851 create? How?

The Great Exhibition of 1851 exoticized India to justify Britain’s imperial rule.

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The Great Exhibition of 1851 was held in the Crystal Palace in London and featured large displays of art and materials from around the world. Prince Albert organized the exhibition in the hopes that it would encourage international trade and lead to economic growth. One of the most significant aspects of the exhibition was that it had products on display from India. India was a British colony that is often called “the jewel in the British crown” because it was so valuable. India was full of precious raw materials that Britain exploited for economic gain.

India was the only British colony that did not represent itself at the Great Exhibition. Instead, Britain’s East India Company organized the section called the “India Pavilion.” The Exhibition thus represented a British perception of India, not what India really was like. For instance, there was a display called “tools of the natives.” If people who were from India had organized the exhibition, they would not have named displays like this and instead would have authentically shown the way they lived and worked instead of portraying themselves as such inferior outsiders. The British also showed off many lavish products from India, like embroidered carpets, ivory, and a large stuffed elephant draped in gold fabric. This made India seem behind in the era of industrial production.

The presentation of products from India at the exhibition also exoticized the colony. The British people who saw the products were meant to view India as a strange, far-off land that was in need of British control to manage valuable materials. Although the West has exoticized places in the East like this throughout history, it is important to recognize that this is problematic. Exoticizing a place or culture can lead to the construction of false ideologies of racial superiority. By promoting India in a way that made it come off as exotic, the British worked to validate their control over the colony.

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