‘Visual Education’ As The Alternative Mode Of Learning At The Crystal Palace, Sydenham


  • Grazia Zaffuto (Independent Scholar)




The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, erected as a permanent cultural institution following the closure of the Great Exhibition of 1851, sought to bring direction to the long-standing inadequacies of pedagogy in existing state and philanthropic schools through the establishment of its own ‘national school’. The simple teaching method chosen by the Crystal Palace was ‘visual education’, which constituted a form of moral awakening through sight rather than words. This disciplined mode of looking associated solely with the sensual was directed towards working-class visitors in need of moral advancement and was completely separate from the rational mind. ‘Visual Education’ at the Crystal Palace was centred around the Fine Arts Courts, which were a series of model architectural buildings specifically designed to transform the complex historical theory of civilizations into a coherent visual illustration of the imperial history of nations. Thus the visual lessons of the Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Alhambra, Italian, and Pompeian Courts as well as others, were charged with moral enlightenment and rules of taste. In this article I argue that the conflicting and contradictory interpretations of the Fine Arts Courts in newspapers and periodicals exposed the inadequacies of a mode of learning focusing solely on the visual and that the tension between the moral lessons and the intellectual responses to ‘visual education’ were shaped by the complexities of existing class hierarchies. Thus, by looking at commentaries in the press, I will show that the aim of educated middle and upper class visitors was not to enter the ‘visual education’ of the Fine Arts Courts to acquire moral taste, but to mark their own social and intellectual advancement.