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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4

Appendix C. — International Exhibitions

Appendix C.

International Exhibitions.

The decision of her Majesty's Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851 has for the moment terminated the slow crisis through which the annual International Exhibitions at South Kensington have been passing. In so far as their decision bears on the past, everybody will concur in the wisdom of putting an end to the present series of exhibitions. But how about the future? Are exhibitions to be given up altogether? Has their usefulness been exhausted? Or are the same purposes to be obtained by different means?

This question must be considered in the light of two other facts. One is the determination of her Majesty's Commissioners to devote their present exhibition galleries for the location of permanent museums for the promotion of technical and scientific education. The other is the movement which has been set on foot for the establishment of museums throughout the country. Are museums, then, to supersede exhibitions, and to effect what exhibitions promised but have failed to achieve? I would be the last to invite at this time a discussion on the causes of the failure of the annual exhibitions, if there were no other object than to point out the faults which have led to this result. Nothing is easier than to find fault after events have spoken. But in face of such a movement, having in view the same purpose as that claimed by the now abandoned exhibitions, it is surely advisable to look into their history, with the object of ascertaining whether, even in their failure, there may not be discernible conclusions which may prove useful guides for future action.

In the two letters which you did me the honour to publish in the Times of the 28th and 30th of December, 1872, after stating the motives which led me to take a personal interest in the matter, I pointed out (1) that the causes which insured the success of the first international exhibitions were now no longer opera- page 58 tive to the same extent; (2) that in the plan of the South Kensington series the altered circumstances of the general economic position were not sufficiently taken into consideration, and that whatever merit their general design possessed, its promises were nullified by the absence of any systematic action for the actual accomplishment of the purposes claimed; and (3) that, therefore, a new departure should be taken, on a basis more in accordance with the wants and tendencies of the present times. At the same time, I attempted to indicate some of the chief features of the programme which would, in my opinion, tend to give the exhibitions a character of tangible and striking public usefulness, and which would re-enlist on their behalf the public support which they had lost.

As connected with the subject of museums I would remark that, as pointed out in the letters referred to, one of the main reasons why the recent exhibitions produced so few practical results has been the absence of any permanent organisation which would have had for its object to collect systematically from each exhibition the practical conclusions apparent from it, and to render these permanently useful by means of trade and technical museums established in the principal seats of commerce and manufactures. But will not the inverted proposition be equally true, that by abandoning exhibitions one would reject the very tool which would render it possible to organise such trade and technical museums as would exercise a direct and powerful influence on commerce and manufactures?

This is the subject on which I propose to touch in the present letter, and I hope to be able to show that although both exhibitions and museums may co-operate for the accomplishment of the same final purpose, their functions, nevertheless, are distinct. They differ as regards their means of action, and though they may usefully supplement, they can never replace each other. A mere enumeration of the more obvious features of museums and exhibitions is sufficient to prove how different are the conditions under which each of these institutions performs its work. A museum is a permanent institution, having exclusively in view objects of ascertained public utility, and being supported, as a rule, either by grants from Parliament or municipalities, or by endowments, or by public subscriptions. The specimens contained in it are selected solely on account of their illustrating some particular type, either of a natural or manufactured product, duplicates being excluded. The permanent character of these institutions renders it possible to carry out a perfectly methodical classification and arrangement. Their chief merit consists in giving a representation of all the already acquired results in the branch of practical or theoretical knowledge to which they refer.

Exhibitions are in every respect the reverse of the above description. They are spasmodic, temporary efforts, making use of private interests, the individual interests of exhibitors and visitors, for the promotion of a public end, their chief attractions being, not systematic completeness or steady usefulness, but novelty and competition. If both museums and exhibitions are to produce an effect on technical education, it is obvious that it must be done by each in a very different manner. If technical education in the narrower sense is meant, that is, the imparting of a certain stock of information to those ignorant of the subject, there can be no doubt that museums, from their systematic and permanent character, are much better adapted for such a purpose than exhibitions. Even if there were no other reasons, the ephemeral nature alone of these latter would render any steady educational influence impossible. I have, therefore, for years past advocated the use of trade and technical museums whenever mere dissemination of practical knowledge among the bulk of the community is aimed at. To have ever attempted to make popular education of this kind the main object of international exhibitions was a cardinal mistake which vitiated the whole enterprise. The conditions under which they occur, the brevity of their existence, the multiplicity of similar articles, the impossibility of a systematic arrangement, make it all but impossible that any profit should be derived from them, except by those already acquainted with the subject. But to those who already possess much knowledge and experience, an international exhibition, if properly organised, might afford an unrivalled opportunity for increasing their knowledge. Exhibitions, therefore, ought to be utilised less for the purpose of increasing the number of people possessed of technical education than for raising the level of knowledge among the classes already possessed of the fullest information regarding each of the subjects represented at the exhibition. This information once acquired may then be rendered permanently available to the country by being embodied in museums. These latter will thus gradually accumulate all the practical suggestions derived from the successive exhibitions, and also supply the standards by which to judge future exhibitions. The exhibitions will thus become the feeders of permanent museums, which will capitalise and bring into circulation their results. There can be no doubt that museums recruited in this manner by international competition, and expressing the last results obtained by an international survey of each subject, will be far more efficient institutions for all practical purposes than if they are page 59 left unconnected with exhibitions, and it is only on this ground, namely, in order to obtain efficient and practical museums, that I would advocate the maintenance of exhibitions.

There are one or two remarks more to be made with respect to the organisation of museums. The first is, that the museums here kept in view are such as would have a direct bearing on commerce and manufactures, affording opportunities of instruction to the manufacturer, to the merchant, and to the skilled workman, in short, to men actually engaged in business; and not merely popular museums for the elementary teaching of some of the practical sciences to school-boys or to the general public. These latter are much more easily organised than the former, but they cannot claim to replace in any sense the influence of exhibitions. The other remark is that, as pointed out in my previous letters, the establishment of great technical museums is rendered in this country easier than might be anticipated from the peculiar centralisation of certain manufactures in certain localities. Thus a technical museum mainly devoted to cotton products and cotton machinery might be established at Manchester; one devoted to wool in Leeds or Bradford; another to metals and metal work in Birmingham—each absorbing from each new exhibition whatever really important novelties had appeared in it. Lastly, many trade and technical collections are capable of being easily reproduced, so that identical sets of the same collections may be widely distributed, thus rendering the work, when once effected, available for the country at large.

The progress of museums having been shown to be dependent on the existence of successful international exhibitions, it may as well, before concluding, to repeat here the main points in the programme for future exhibitions of this kind sketched in my former letters on the subject:—
(1.)It must, at the outset, be admitted that a respite of a few years will be desirable on many grounds. On the one hand, people are now tired out by the constant repetition of exhibitions, the chief features of which hardly change; and, on the other, some time is required before a new organisation could be brought into action; and, finally, there would be required, in addition to the present exhibition galleries, a spacious central hall, which would require some time for its erection.
(2.)The plan followed in the present series of annual exhibitions, that of embracing, in addition to a group containing artistic or scientific novelties, only a few groups of manufactures at a time, appears in every way a practical one if well executed. There is no valid reason why an iron and steel, or a silk and velvet, or a lace exhibition should tire the public when it is considered that these will only recur at intervals of ton years. The practical application of the ten years system requires, however, considerable amendment. The yearly fine art group should be discontinued, and international exhibitions of pictures and statuary should recur at the same period as all other groups. By making the manufacturing groups of each year the main feature of the exhibition, and by organising them in a thorough manner, the exhibitions will be able to dispense with the yearly pictures, statues, music, and other attractions throwing into shade their real purpose, and will sufficiently possess the characteristics of novelty essential for success.
(3.)As previously remarked, the exhibitions should be organised for the benefit of those who already possess the highest skill and knowledge. The best intellect should be procured for perfecting all the arrangements, facilitating the survey of all the accumulated materials, for instituting experiments and competitive trials whenever feasible, and for the issue of reports embracing the chief results of the exhibitions written up to the level of the best informed men in each special subject. These reports would also form the basis for the selection of the articles for the permanent museums. There is no reason to apprehend that exhibitions would suffer in popularity by such a proceeding. Popularity, like happiness, is never so difficult of attainment as when directly aimed at. Let those whom public opinion accept as authorities in each line be convinced of the thorough and useful character of the exhibitions, and the public is sure to follow.
(4.)The exhibition itself would consist of several more or less independent series, each Arranged with the special purpose of being most useful to the classes most interested in their execution.

There would be first the manufacturing series, consisting of the products, manufactures, and machinery of the current year. No pedant, classification should be attempted; indeed, the nearest approach to the actual trade divisions would be the most convenient grouping. The utmost latitude should be allowed to exhibitors in the way of arrangement, and the practice of awarding medals might be re-established, with the view of giving an additional stimulus to competition, which is the characteristic of this series.

The next series would be the pioneer series, combining all artistic novelties, or scientific and mechanical inventions, as well as products recently brought into market. The privilege of effecting sales should be accorded to the exhibitors in this series, as in case of articles not yet established in the market there could be no chance of an unfair competition with outsiders.

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The third series would be the representative series, consisting of articles selected from the two preceding ones on account of special merit, and arranged according to a methodic system of classification, thus summarising and rendering intelligible to the public the chief results of the exhibition. The admission into the representative series, which would occupy the great hall of the exhibition, would be in itself counted as high distinction, and at the close of the exhibition the specimens in this series might, in many instances, pass immediately into the permanent museums.

The fourth and last series would be the "Domestic" or "Social Series," representing the articles in their daily use, and as far as possible among their usual domestic surroundings; that is, in the manner which they are most likely to interest the public, and to educate it in its capacity of a consumer. Special collections, illustrating some special point of history, ethnology, political economy, or art, would also fall under this head, all appealing directly to the sympathies of the general public.

I am hopeful that such a programme would go far towards satisfying each of the special interests concerned in exhibitions. The character of exhibitions as public institutions of national importance would be maintained by the systematic and visible utilisation of their results, while ample room would be given to the individual interests of the exhibitors and visitors.

In conclusion, I would express my belief that some such programme as that here indicated will in time be carried out, even should it be in detail, and by several independent agencies. This belief I found on the fact that the basis of the pro. gramme here sketched is indestructible, being founded in the motives which constitute the permanent springs of action of large classes of the community, which in a progressive society like ours will receive satisfaction. The desire of exhibitors for distinction, that of inventors and discoverers for public introduction, the desire of the general public for instruction, of the special trades for technical education, of the statesman and political economist for a comparative survey of international trade, are motives sure to reassert themselves in some shape or other. The present opportunity seems to me favourable for making use of all these special tendencies, and for making them co-operate to the same end.

Athenæum Club, June, 1874.