We were discussing the Crystal Palace a few weeks ago in class. The Crystal Palace was home to the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was meant to display the latest technology and fashionable objects from all over the world.
The article we read by Thomas Richards, “The Great Exhibition of Things” combined with our class discussion made me think of Ikea, which is similar to the Crystal Palace in many ways: the gigantic size of the typical Ikea warehouse is comparable to the 990,000 square feet that made up the Crystal Palace. The way Ikea forces you to walk through the entire store is very much like the traffic flow in the Crystal Palace. The fact that both spaces are so full of material objects that it’s impossible for visitors to really ‘see’ everything.
One of the purposes of the Great Exhibition was that it was meant to inform an aesthetic, especially of the middle class. It told the middle class what kinds of things they needed to buy in order to lead a middle class lifestyle and what a middle class life should look like. Likewise, Ikea’s room displays do the same. Who wouldn’t want a room that looked this nice and modern?
The Great Exhibition created a new sense of need and desire with Victorian consumers. As Richards noted, “the exhibition created modern merchandising, which was both a way of talking about commodities and increasingly, a way of looking at them” (39). However, the items showcased in the Great Exhibition were not for sale. Consumers had to go elsewhere to buy them. Similarly, customers at Ikea walking through the room displays must go down to the warehouse area with the item code in order to purchase it.
Thus you can see how the Great Exhibition was the precursor to our modern day stores, like Ikea. I’d like to end this post with one last image and quote that I think give an accurate portrayal of the contents of the Crystal Palace:
“The aisle itself, father than they eye can reach, is studded with works of art; statues in marble, in bronze, in plaster, in zinc; here is a gigantic Amazon on horseback, there is a raging lion…Busts, Casts, Medallions, and smaller Bronzes abound; with elegant Clocks, Chandeliers, Cabinets, &etc” (Richards, 27). I think most people who have been to Ikea have similar memories or feelings about the space–at least, I definitely do: a billion different bookshelves next to a billion different lamps near a hundred kinds of organizers, etc. It’s an overwhelming place.