0302 'Buried Empires': Showmanship and the Staging of Aesthetic Knowledge at the Sydenham Crystal Palace, 1854–1855

  • Karen Burns (Author)

    Karen Burns is a design, architectural and cultural historian who researches 19th-century design, race, and gender, and histories of women and architecture in the late 20th century. She is currently writing a new history of women and 19th-century design reform: Making Women: Gender, Space and Making Practice in Early British Design Reform. Relevant recent publications include "Time and Telegraphy: Nineteenth-Century Contexts for Stained Glass", in: 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century no. 30 (2020), https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.2902. She is co-editor with Professor Lori Brown of The Bloomsbury Global Encyclopedia of Women in Architecture, 1960–2015 (2 volumes, London 2023) and with Katie Lloyd-Thomas co-wrote the new foreword to the 2022 reprint of the feminist collective Matrix’s Making Space: Women and the Man-made Environment (original ed. 1984).

Identifiers (Article)


In June 1854, the second Crystal Palace opened at Sydenham in South London. The media reported keenly on Sydenham’s large-scale archaeological reconstructions known as the Fine Arts Courts. These exhibits were designed by prominent design reformers as a means to improve public knowledge and public taste. However, the Courts attracted frequently hostile reviews from notable art critics who derided the displays as entertainment spectacles. This essay reevaluates the Courts by examining their deliberate showmanship. I trace the origins of the Sydenham display techniques in the archaeological representations made by the Sydenham Court designers for the London print, performance, and exhibition markets. Following the lead of historians of popular science, this essay emphasises the significance of popular formats and popularisation in Victorian visual culture and knowledge formation. It examines the reconstructions as visualising technologies designed to popularise, stage and communicate Victorian visual knowledge. I argue that both designers and showmen presented a virtual past through shared strategies of showmanship, the staging of expertise, and dramatic, poetic narrative. The Sydenham Fine Arts Courts were complex visual commodities, offering both instruction and diversion. Some Victorian critics found these aims mutually incompatible.


Victorian visual culture, design reform, archaeology, aesthetic knowledge, popularisation