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Display, Exhibition and Spectacle in London, 1750-1850


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Anna Jamieson
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

The middle decades of the eighteenth century were a time of intense and self-conscious observation across a variety of cultural spaces. As the century progressed, London became home to a smorgasbord of spectacular sites - including galleries and exhibitions, pleasure gardens and tourist attractions, hospitals and asylums - that invited and encouraged specific ways of looking at the different spectacles on show. Engaging with these cultural developments, this module explores various sites of display, exhibition and spectacle in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London. We will question the relationship between spectator and spectacle, asking: how were individuals and collections expected to look at different spectacles and spaces, and how prescribed were these modes of looking? The module encourages imaginative and theoretical thinking in relation to a range of visual, textual and material sources, as we reconstruct what it was like to be a spectator or a visitor at these sites.

Each case study will be explored alongside topics and themes that prove vital to our understanding of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century identity and experience, from broader concepts of gender, race, sexuality and the body to more specific themes of sensibility, moral philosophy, spectatorial sympathy and the display of suffering. Paying particular attention to the range of digital resources now available for historians of this period, this course also gives you the opportunity to consider debates surrounding 'Dark Tourism' and 'Freakery' within an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century context.

Indicative module syllabus

  • The 1796 exhibition at the Shakespeare Gallery
  • The 1813 exhibition at the British Institution
  • The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy
  • Bethlem Asylum
  • Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
  • The self-display of 'human oddities' and 'freakish individuals'

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the relationship between historical spectators and spectatorship
  • demonstrate an awareness of the main issues, debates and approaches in the field, and understand how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century spectacle, display and exhibition relate to identity, self and the body
  • demonstrate an understanding of the specific historical and cultural contexts of selected case studies (e.g. exhibitions, institutional displays) and the ways that each case study interacts with the module’s key themes
  • critically analyse visual and textual sources related to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century spectacle, experience and identity.