The Pianoforte at the Great Exhibition of 1851: Investigating Cultural Value

Smith, Bethan Evie. 2017. The Pianoforte at the Great Exhibition of 1851: Investigating Cultural Value. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

My thesis is an object-based study which uses the piano as an investigative tool with which to explore cultural value from the perspective of different audiences in attendance at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In a nutshell, my approach is to use an object to explore how a specific historical event was understood. The piano proves to be a provocative agent; physical complexity (both internal and external), the ability to signify multiple meanings and a varied price tag are all relevant characteristics. The thesis examines the perspective of the Exhibition organisers, juxtaposed with networks of other human and non-human actors, focusing specifically on how the materiality of objects and the Exhibition building contributed to meaning. The thesis also considers how visitors and judges might have evaluated exhibits taking into account what knowledge and ‘habitus’ would have shaped their understanding. The piano maker’s perspective is investigated with a view to establishing why the range of instruments displayed was so diverse and whether or not the items chosen reflected normal everyday output. The consumer’s perspective questions how class purchasing power might have impacted how visitors understood the designation ‘cheap’ which was applied to some products, including the piano. Some of my work tackles issues already identified by Exhibition scholars such as visuality, imperialism, consumerism and the question of working-class inclusion, using alternate theoretical methods. Most of the thesis, however, ventures into new territory, specifically the significance of materiality and the role of sound. My work also questions whether the piano was understood primarily as a sound producer or as a decorative object adopting a constructivist methodology rather than the more usual technological approach. In wider terms, my most significant contribution, both to the fields of New Organology and Material Culture Studies, concerns the application of physical evidence to answer wider cultural questions.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Piano, Great Exhibition, Value, Nineteenth Century

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



31 March 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

05 Apr 2017 16:00

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 17:09


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