Our continuing series features the 2015–16 seminar:

In Focus: The 1853 New York Crystal Palace

In the fall and spring semesters, Professor David Jaffee led a two-course Focus Project on the 1853 New York Crystal Palace, which will open in the Focus Gallery in spring 2017. Designed to bridge academic and curatorial forms of inquiry, Focus Projects are typically led by faculty members and postdoctoral fellows with extensive student participation and culminate in small-scale exhibitions and publications. Participants work with Bard Graduate Center’s professional gallery staff of curators, designers, and media specialists in all phases of the project’s development, from conception to execution. By promoting experimentation in display, interpretation, and the use of digital media, Focus Projects reflect the Center’s commitment to exhibitions as integral to scholarly activity.

The New York Crystal Palace of 1853 (formally known as the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations) was the first world’s fair held in the United States, housed in an impressive cast-iron structure on the site of what is now Bryant Park. Like its namesake, held in London in 1851, the Crystal Palace showcased an enormous range of manufactured consumer goods and technological marvels of the age.

The fall seminar explored the Crystal Palace alongside competing venues including A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace, daguerreian “saloons,” and P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, to better understand how New York City became a center of urban culture and consumption in the mid-nineteenth century. Students located surviving objects featured in the 1853 exhibition, along with contemporary souvenirs, publications, lithographs, daguerreotypes, stereoviews, and wood engravings that diffused images and/or memories of the event.

This spring, the class is busy putting together the exhibition checklist, writing labels, and composing essays for the digital publication, which will build upon Professor Jaffee’s 2014–15 Focus Project Visualizing 19th-Century New York (visualizingnyc.org). One of the project’s primary goals, articulated during class discussions, is to convey different individuals’ diverse experiences of attending the Crystal Palace. To this end, students are creating audio tours that will be available in the exhibit space. These will present the enthusiastic observations by Walt Whitman—a frequent visitor—as well as suggesting how others from across the United States and abroad might have viewed the exhibition. We look forward to the opening in March of 2017!

—Professor David Jaffee

1 of 3
William Sydney Mount, “Hollow Back Violin.” NMAH americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/ob
Interior view of the New York Crystal Palace. NYPL Digital Collections digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e9-1a90-d471-e040-e00a180654d7
Currier & Ives, “Burning of the New York Crystal Palace,” 1858. MCNY. collections.mcny.org/Collection/Burning-of-the-New-York-Crystal-Palace-2F3XC5N8IUPO.html