Using a combination of archive material and impressive technology, The Royal Parks have recreated the Great Exhibition of 1851 in a stunning virtual tour.

While some of lockdown’s restrictions may have lifted, we still need to be inventive with how we get our culture fixes. Luckily, organisations across the globe are tailoring their output to life in a #stayathome world. An excellent case in point is the Royal Parks’ new virtual tour of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Great Exhibition: Then

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, heavily promoted by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was conceived to celebrate the industrial technology and design of the Victorian age.

Exhibitors came from across the globe to showcase their wares in the giant Crystal Palace that had been created especially. When it opened in Hyde Park on May 1, 1851, it was a marvel of its time. Five thousand laborers worked on the Crystal Palace, which took just five months to complete. Made out of glass and cast iron, the enormous temporary building measured around 563m by 138m and was 39m high. It was the largest structure on earth at the time.

Six million people – including the Royal Family (several times), Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll – visited the exhibition, which ran until 15 October, 1851.

Through The Great Exhibition, which was considered a success, Britain sought to prove its superiority and offer the world hope of a better future.

The Great Exhibition’s Legacy

When the exhibition closed, the Crystal Palace was deconstructed and moved from Hyde Park to the area of southwest London that is now known as Crystal Palace. A fire destroyed the building in 1936. Watching it burn, Winston Churchill said: ‘This is the end of an age.’ However, its legacy was not burned to ashes; there was enough profit from the exhibition to build the South Kensington cultural behemoths, Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A.

The Great Exhibition: Now

Today, for the first time in 169 years, visitors can tour The Great Exhibition again – from the comfort of the sofa.

The Royal Parks, the charity that manages London’s eight royal parks, has teamed up with Seymour & Lerhn, an educational virtual reality company, to create the first virtual tour of the historic building in its original Hyde Park location.

Seymour & Lerhn’s Charlie Power, says: ‘Crystal Palace was a truly incredible feat of engineering, and we’re delighted to see it brought to life on its 169th anniversary.

With the lockdown continuing, this virtual tour offers a unique way for people to ‘get out of the house’ and explore the history hidden within Hyde Park – all without actually having to leave their homes.’

How Does It Work?

Using their phone, tablet or PC, visitors can take a 360-degree tour around the formidable venue.

The building was regenerated digitally using The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851’s archive of plans and images, as well as The Royal Parks’ historical documents and old maps.

A combination of CGI and 360 photography overlays the historic building onto the present-day site, allowing visitors to switch between then and now.

What’s In It For Me?

Trust us, this is one cool online tour – and you can spend as much or as little time on it as you please.

You will be bowled over by the huge scale of the site. You will be enchanted by the pretty Victorian cutouts of visitors from across the globe. You will discover gripping stories – such as the one about the first-ever public loos, which you had to ‘spend a penny’ to use, and the lady who walked from Cornwall to attend the exhibition – as you navigate. You’ll be soothed by the birdsong in the tour’s soundtrack. And you will brush up on your history all the while.

Ledy Leyssen, head of learning at The Royal Parks, says: ‘The Great Exhibition opened on May 1, 1851 in London’s Hyde Park to showcase the arts, science and technology of the day, yet nothing remains of the structure now.

So, 169 years later, we’ve harnessed today’s technology to bring the Royal Parks’ heritage to life, uncovering the park’s past for everyone to enjoy.’

Time Out says: ‘Want to escape the real world? We feel you. You might not be able to travel very far IRL right now, but thanks to some nifty virtual reality, you can now go back in time to 1851 to take a tour round Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace.’

Don’t let anybody say that learning stops in lockdown…

By Becky Ladenburg
June 2020

All images are Public Domain.

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Becky Ladenburg

Features Editor

As the GWG's features editor, Becky has her discerning finger on the cultural pulse. She's also our go-to expert on the property market.