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The Crystal Palace on exhibit

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Image: The Crystal Palace, North Transept

Conceived by Prince Albert, designed by Joseph Paxton, and engineered by William Cubitt in wrought iron, wood, and glass, the Palace housed more than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world in 990,000 square feet of exhibition space. The British people who flooded into London on the first railroad trains in 1851 saw ancient wonders, current civilizations, and modern inventions.

The Palace apparently crystallized hopes about world trade and peace between peoples, though strolling through their wildly different cultural exhibits, a realist might well have wondered exactly how that would transpire.

The invisible supports of the Crystal Palace were British rights, constitutional government, and common law, which encouraged exploration, entrerprise, inventiveness and prosperity. Some say that peoples of the Anglosphere exploited others with their advanced technology. Certainly without that technology the black lakes of oil beneath the desert would never have been touched, and we might still be riding horses or, perhaps, driving electric cars, and avoiding difficulties which we face today, while encountering others.

We have never been skilled at telling the future or understanding exactly where our steps are leading us, have we? The Crystal Palace burned down in a great fire that lit the sky on the eve of the Second World War.

Pieces of History - the Crystal Palace, with historian Michael Gilbert, Foundling Museum, 2 - 4 pm, 24 February; Glass Monster with cultural commentator Stephen Bayley, Foundling Museum, 7 pm, 26 February; Handel at the Crystal Palace, sponsored by the Foundling Museum, Now - 2 March.

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