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Not lost in the mists at all

Sir, I read in your magazine (Geoscientists passim.): ‘For reasons lost in the mists of time the President of the Society is an ex-officio Commissioner of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’. I thought I would attempt to thin these mists a little for readers, for they are no mists at all.

The Society of Arts (now the Royal Society of Arts) proposed the idea of a national exhibition of manufactures in 1844. The SA’s patron, Prince Albert, actively backed the idea and was instrumental in forming a Royal Commission to develop and promote the idea. To broaden the representation of the Commission, leaders of industry, the arts and science were appointed. These included, among others, Sir Charles Lyell, then President of the Geological Society and Sir Henry De la Beche, founder and Director General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain.

The Great Exhibition of 1851, which resulted from the work of the Royal Commission, was not only a cultural and public relations success, if earned a large surplus. Although before the exhibition the plan for any profit that might arise had been to support future international exhibitions, the surplus of £505,000 was so large, that it opened up other possibilities. It was decided that future exhibitions could and would be self-supporting and profitable, and that therefore the surplus from the Exhibition of 1851 could be used ‘in the furtherance of the general objects for which the Exhibition had been designed’.

The general objects included ‘measures . . . which may increase the means of industrial education, and extend the influence of art and science upon productive industry’. From this objective flowed the purchase if land in Kensington upon which developed Imperial College and the great museum complex, Albertopolis’ along Exhibition and Cromwell Roads. Within this complex De la Beche’s Museum of Practical Geology was expanded (or absorbed) into the Geological Museum, now part of the Natural History Museum. Investments from the original surplus have expanded and continue to generate income; the forward looking Royal Commission continued, to administer and distribute this income for the furtherance of the objectives of the 1851 project. Charles Lyell’s position on the Royal Commission has been inherited by all subsequent Presidents of the Geological Society.

Source: Hobhouse, Hermione, 2002. The Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition; Art, Science and the Great Exhibition; A History of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. London & New York: Continuum.

John Henry