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  • Investigating World’s Fairs: an Historiography
  • Lisa Munro

World’s fairs and international expositions captured the imagination of both the public and world leaders from the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth. Expositions organized the world into an orderly, symbolic representation of cultural modernity and industrial progress. At their zenith, expositions took place several times a year in different locations around the world, but occurred most frequently in the United States and Europe. Nations across the globe scrambled to host their own expositions or, at the very least, participate in an important exposition in order to share in the excitement that surrounded these fairs. The multiple goals, exhibits, and expressions of the nature of world’s fairs and international expositions makes them ideal subjects for cultural historians to understand the assumptions, beliefs, and worldviews of people who both constructed and attended these major events. These fairs not only captivated international audiences, but also influenced collective and individual memories of the enormous spectacles.

The visual representation of people and concepts has structured knowledge and provided people with an easily understood ideological map of the world. Although images had always served to transmit information and ideas, representations assumed an even higher profile in the late nineteenth century after the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of an economic system that relied on the production of massive amounts of consumer goods that came to adorn public venues for visual consumption. A pattern of display emerged: Visual representations took on increased significance as private, closed displays of collections of art, scientific specimens, and archaeological artifacts became more accessible through the gradual opening of locations that encouraged the public to understand the world through exhibition. The shift toward expositions formed part of a larger “exhibitionary culture” that developed during the late nineteenth century.1 The increased visibility of world’s fairs, national museums, and department stores allowed new cultural attitudes toward display and exhibition to flourish, making visual representation an authoritative medium for the transmission of knowledge. The strategic display of material culture in these public venues provided a tangible way for powerful institutions, such as local and national governments, as well as elite economic interests to broadcast visually their worldviews to a large audience. 2 The increasing visibility of science, art, and consumer goods promoted [End Page 80] visual representations as the primary means of learning about the world as well as providing explanations about its order and purpose. The culture of display helped structure the relationships between visitors and objects in the exhibit that mirrored the proper relationship between the public and state institutions and reinforced social order. Furthermore, expositions served didactic purposes in that fair organizers designed exhibits inculcate the public in acceptable social roles and cultural values.3

Among the plethora of exhibits of natural resources, scientific devices, and modern consumer products, the display of human beings constituted a crucial part of the visual messages that viewers received. Fairs offered viewers a glimpse of strange and exotic beings through both living ethnographic exhibits and static dioramas, which commonly featured indigenous people from both overseas and internal colonial possessions. Colonized peoples at fairs served as trophies as well as souvenirs for imperial nations and their citizens. Even in stationary dioramas, exhibits that displayed archaeological and ethnographic materials represented the symbolic presence of foreign peoples and structured the relationship between the viewers and the exhibit. The display of people served as a bridge between popular entertainment and both popular and anthropological conceptions of race and evolution based on Social Darwinism. These exhibits conveyed a number of ideas, such as the power of empire as well as popularized pseudo-scientific ideas about the nature of indigenous people. By the end of the nineteenth century, representations of imperialism had become standard fare at expositions.4 Fair organizers, often in the guise of anthropologists, attempted to present indigenous people in supposedly authentic settings, creating the impression of savagery, barbarity, and exoticism that titillated fairgoers.5 The juxtaposition of well-heeled visitors and savage Indians emphasized the dichotomy between civilization and barbarity as well as progress and primitivism.

The subtle ideas and discourses generated at expositions remained lodged in the public consciousness long after the destruction...


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pp. 80-94
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