Put simply, it was the first World's Fair. There had been national exhibitions by other countries, such as France, but this was the first international exhibition. A project spearheaded by Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition was ambitious and wide-reaching. Granted, the purpose of including other countries was to convey the tacit message of Britain's technological superiority, but the conglomeration of so many countries, showcasing their valuables and talents, was unprecedented. Materially and ideologically, the Great Exhibition represents the best and brightest of Victorian Britain.
Now, not all of the countries were well represented. For instance, China refused to participate so the artifacts displayed were from British private collections. Since Japan was still closed to foreigners in 1851, it didn't have its own display; some "japanned" pieces were included in the China section.
To me, the building alone sounds breathtaking. Designed by Joseph Paxton and dubbed "The Crystal Palace," the glass and metal structure resembles, well, a Brobdingnagian birdcage. Lots of greenhouses since then have replicated its delicate brilliance. And the Crystal Palace restaurant at Disney World is a "mere mortal" version of the magnificent structure.
The Crystal Palace was moved in 1854 to Syndenham Hall (and dinosaur statues were added!); sadly, the edifice was destroyed by a fire in 1936.
In addition to some wonderful books about the Great Exhibition (including a detailed illustrated catalog of the items displayed), here are some great online resources.
- Victoria & Albert Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/g/great-exhibition/
- The Crystal Palace Foundation: http://www.crystalpalacefoundation.org.uk/
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was convened in 1850 to design and execute Prince Albert's plan for a grand international extravaganza that celebrated industry and technology. The Royal Commission still exists today: http://www.royalcommission1851.org.uk/archive.html