Nordic Exhibition of 1888

The great hall of the Nordic Exhibition of 1888, photographed by Vilhelm Tillge

The Nordic exhibition of Industry, Agriculture, and Art of 1888 was an exhibition that aimed to feature the best of art, industry, and agriculture from the five Nordic countries. It was a joint-venture between 29 organisations and institutions, with the weight on the private side, represented foremost by the Association of Copenhagen Industrialists. The exhibition was located in Copenhagen, Denmark and was visited by 1.3 million people.

Influence of national responsibility

Organizers contributed with his or her picture of "what the fuss was all about." Pictures which were added to the event as a whole. In the spring of 1883, however, all these views on the exhibition were part of the future. At that point the completeness of the exhibition was narrowed down to be an idea fostered by Mr. Philip Schou. The latter was a successful shareholder and daily manager of the ceramic factory Royal Copenhagen.

Like the foregoing generations of influential men - say, in the years from democracy was being introduced to the state of Denmark - Philip Schou took a great length of time to involve himself in national issues. In short, the idea to the exhibition was fostered in a period when the nation was being built. Built by men who recognized they were in that process, even though they surely could only guess on the collective outcome of their actions.

The emphasis of this specific cultural thread was, of cause, especially influential to the capital milieus of Copenhagen. And as such, fertilized both the forthcoming (as well as the realization) of the exhibition concept. Thus it was pointed out time and again by Philip Schou; the expo took place to create a platform foremost for the Danish citizens. So they would recognize the completeness of the national splendours; the products, lifestyles, and arts from all of Denmark. Likewise it was exactly the national aspects that knitted the different interests together in the organising assembly of the exhibition. Surely conflicts could not be avoided. Nevertheless, the corporation was fueled with the knowledge that the buzzing combatants in the end belonged to the same hive.

Industrial art

Industrial art and responsibility

An everlasting cause to conflicts in the exhibition committee was the question of how industrial art should be part of the scenario. To Philip Schou and those who had supported his idea from the beginning it was exactly the innermost mission of the exhibition to advocate that concept.

Simply put industrial art consisted of reminiscences of romantic thoughts, combined with a critic attitude towards the modern times. The concept included a belief in a certain ‘spirit’ of the ethnic, which in short meant that individual groups upheld certain characteristics. And that these characteristic was somehow manifest in the products created by the people.

It is no wonder that followers of this idea comprehended the introduction of machinery in the latter half of 1800 highly negatively. The machineries tended to exclude the human touch to the products. Which therefore did not become impregnated with the ‘folkgeist’ but became utterly ‘soulless.’ In that respect, the primary challenge of the modern age consisted in finding a method to keep the human touch attached to the products.

The solution was Industrial art. Defined as middle sized factories that kept on using manpower in as many areas as possible, only reserving the hardest work to the machine. Surely this line of reasoning was not attractive to all branches, but primary to those that already included an aspect of ‘artful expression’ to the final product. Needless to mention, almost all the eight originators belonged to such branches.

Prevention of national disaster

The concept of industrial art had ability to reach further, than to those already in the branch. This was due to developments in economic thinking. From that direction it was stated that to be successful in the world marked that emerged in the second half of the 1800, every country would have to specialise in a range of products.

The outcome of this consideration combined with the idea of industrial art was clear cut. For a small state like Denmark the way to survive on the world marked, was to specialise in areas where the folkgeist could shine through. In fact this was not as a situation of choice, but as a necessity!

In the age of the exhibition the high-pitched voices than announced the last sentence, belonged to a minority. However, due to special circumstances that emerged in Denmark after 1864, there was a widespread fear that the nation was on its way to ruin. This fear was pregnant even in places like the administration. And it made many ears and minds perceptible to voices (no matter how high-pinched) which brought forward solutions to prevent the end.

Nevertheless, there was a continuous fight in the exhibition committee on the subject of industrial art. The majority of the committee members outright disagreed that this line of thoughts should be placed at the front of the exhibition, and thereby state that the organizing body as a whole supported the idea. This battle of expositional ideology was won by the originators. The Copenhagen Exhibition was first and foremost a tribute to the concept of industrial art.

Nordic brotherhood

The life source in Scandinavia has been drawn from the same well since the dawn of days, one of the more originators wrote dreamingly some years before the exhibition. The kinfolks of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are thus distinguishable from the others, and yet inevitable entangled. The poetic claim was not utterly out of reason, at least not seen from the second half of the 1800. The centuries that could be looked back upon then, were in many ways defined by regional Nordic unity or at least highly intermingled developing patterns.

One of the step stones towards the realization of the expo was therefore to call upon the neighbours and invite them to party. This would make it possible to get a survey of the standpoint of the Nordic countries in the areas of industry, agriculture, and art. And it would also be a reminder to the crowds of modern age of their common heritage.

From a strategic position the talk of brotherhood was a further avocation of the subject of industrial art. A Nordic home marked -secured by trade walls- would ensure a nice stable growth of the many small and middle sized factory units in the region.

However, at this point in the chain of reasoning the originator was oddly silent. The reason to this was most probably that talk of Nordic unity could cause implications to the Danish foreign policies. The policy towards Europe’s strongest power was in short to ensure that absolutely no steps were taken that could be comprehended ‘negative.’ Talk of a protected Scandinavian marked that would exclude Germany, but include Finland (satellite of Russia) did not fit into that line of policy.

The motives to arrange an exhibition where a good many – Surely not all of them where outspoken right away.

Exhibition support

The way towards the expo was first and foremost a stony road of hard work. As mentioned the idea was fostered by Philip Schou in 1883, the very same year he became chairman of the Association of Copenhagen Industrialist. Since its foundation in the 1840s the association was meant to act as a dynamic forefront of modern age. This by introducing newly developed wonders (machineries, mostly) that with success could be implemented by society. But in the span of years that proceeded Philip Schou’s entry as chairman this work had had bad conditions. Primary because the membership profile of the association had changed. Reports suggest that a majority of members in the late 1870s comprehended the membership as a club membership, with the weight on relaxation facilities.

When Philip Schou introduced a range of measures to promote industrial art, he faced negative response from a majority of the members. However, a minority was able to commit the association in the aforementioned direction, likely a result of the status they held. This minority was influential due to their significant representation in different boards of the association. And also several were sons of the association’s founding fathers. In short, the group of originators looked like a coherent minority.

The reality of the proposal was that the exposition did not require much funding in terms of money. The heavy workload that would be involve would be purely voluntary. So even though the idea may not have been what the majority distinctly wanted, it could not really be seen harmful to other interests in the association. In a far from unanimous state of mind, the Association of Copenhagen Industrialist therefore in 1884, undertook the enormous responsibility to organize the exhibition of 1888.

Exposition committee

Institutions as such did not always correspond to the originators view on which connections was needed to fulfill the project. This was reflected in a schedule made in the beginning of 1885 consisting of those who were to participate. Some of the men on the list did not belong to any organisation. Rather they represented what must be recognized as political, royal, and economic spheres of society.

It is hardly a surprise that a broad basis of interest was desirable to secure the project. Which indicate that membership of the committee was not limited to institutions. In general this point towards a scrutiny of the role individuals was to have in the committee of organisations. For example, most of the institutions that were permitted to join the committee did so by invitation. These typical contained not only the number of seats available for the specific institution, but furthermore the names of those individuals who were designated to the seats.

Actually the originators sometimes comprehended the institutions as trade able cards. This was apparent as the Royal Agrarian Society joined the committee. As the society’s members arrived they stated that they also represented 3 other organisations, which thereby joined the committee. Due the fact that admission to the committee for these new organisations had corresponded closely to the individuals’ admittance by the committee’s invitation, it was shown that individuals was recognised on a level just as important as the institutions.

Sometimes the importance of institutions was even overruled by persons, as seen in the case of the Royal academy of Art. The head of the academy did not particularly wanted the academy to participate, whereas the committee was interested in its participation, but wanted to avoid the director. This situation was at a deadlock for more than a year, until members at the academy finally decided to take matter into hands and inform committee, as well as director, that they would represent the academy.


By the 1880s the romantic thoughts of Industrial art was anachronistic. The idea consisted both of a belief in qualities of the ethnic bloodline which was reflected in the handiwork. As well as it required extraordinary political will, to impose the implications hereof into the realms of real life. To turn ordinary and educated men on that kind of scheme was uphill all the way.

Nevertheless, this was what the group of originators aimed at by arranging the Expo. It must be concluded they failed. Rather it seems like a majority of the involved went along for the roller coaster ride. This is not to say that the expo did not cause any or long lasting results. On the contrary it did; in almost infinite numbers. But the flourishing of Industrial art was not one of them. Rather the concept was placed in a museum, where it is still to be enjoyed today.

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