- Bridging the Gulf: Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina on Display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition
As world’s fairs grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nations eagerly participated in expositions and constructed national pavilions that showcased their natural and cultural wonders. These displays reflected the ways that nations conceptualized themselves as well as projected a carefully cultivated image to international audiences. In addition to technological progress, impressive machinery, and natural resources, these national exhibits featured archaeological and ethnographic objects in order to promote their particular understandings of indigenous people through the collection, analysis, and display of these materials. Nations were helped in this endeavor by anthropologists who created and reproduced discourses about the lives of native peoples through representations of ancient and contemporary material culture. The prevalence of these anthropological displays at expositions makes them ideal sites to examine historical and national constructions and representations about the proposed nature of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.
Latin American nations, especially Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, represented their indigenous populations at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. This essay analyzes their static anthropology displays and the messages that were conveyed. Except for Mexico, no other Latin or South American nation sent demonstrators. The Mexican government erected a rural village where “peasants” in large hats, bleached cotton shirts and trousers demonstrated crafts such as blacksmithing. The ethnographic displays in the anthropology section contained an exhibit called “Aztecs and Their Industries,” which featured live artisans working with brick, copper, and traditional pottery. This display also showcased numerous photographs of “pure” Indians.1 The Tehuelche from the southern tip of Argentina and the Cocopa from northern Sonora, Mexico, came as performers in the anthropology exhibits, their trips paid for from departmental funds by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Corporation. Neither group was referenced in the Mexican or Argentinean national exhibits. Their stories have been told in Anthropology Goes to the Fair and so will not be repeated here.2 [End Page 25]
These national and thematic displays helped form American popular cultural views of Latin American nations and of how the exhibitors viewed their indigenous populations. Not only did the displays of anthropological materials indicate the nature of the nation’s relationship with its contemporary indigenous peoples, but it also suggested a shift in how each previously colonized nation viewed its past, present, and future.
Displaying and Celebrating New Nations
Before World War I, modern world’s fairs and industrial expositions constituted a phenomenally successful popular culture movement in Western nations. Beginning in 1851 with London’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, international fairs focused on science and machines, the “Engines of Progress,” and the competitive successes of Western civilization over the rest of the world. These extraordinary events had political, ideological, and economic import; they helped the established and the new nations mold their self-identities and launch claims to power and prestige. For example, Guatemala in 1897 hosted its own Central American Exposition to display its industrial progress and highlight its “developed” infrastructure of railroads, telegraphs, and machinery. The exposition aimed to showcase the nation’s emerging national identity, a diplomatic signal that it no longer belonged in the category of “former colony,” but rather had become a nation in its own right. This ideological shift in nationalism was aimed to ensure Guatemala’s entrance into the elite coterie of countries that had achieved the seemingly elusive condition of “modernity.” Hosting a major world’s fair represented a considerable achievement for Guatemala, since chronic political instability and economic crises had marked its history since independence in 1821. The successful execution of an exposition represented a significant milestone; it sent the message that Guatemala as a nation stood ready to participate in the global economy and broadcast its commitment to modernization. Few other Latin American nations held their own fairs, because of the tremendous cost, the distance from Europe, and the enormous number of expositions being held, but many eagerly participated in a number of expositions held in the United States and Europe.3
Nations fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a major exposition built their own...