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  • Behind the Exhibit: Displaying Science and Technology at World's Fairs and Museums in the Twentieth Century. Artefacts: Studies in the History of Science and Technology, vol. 12 ed. by Elena Canadelli
  • Morris Low (bio)
Behind the Exhibit: Displaying Science and Technology at World's Fairs and Museums in the Twentieth Century. Artefacts: Studies in the History of Science and Technology, vol. 12.
Edited by Elena Canadelli, Marco Beretta, and Laura Ronzon. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2019. Pp. 263.

The papers in this handsomely illustrated book document how nations have looked to science and technology exhibits to celebrate their achievements since the late nineteenth century. While many historians have noted, in passing, how exhibits at world's fairs have often made their way into museums, this book is the first devoted to exploring the links between these settings. In addition, it documents how there has been a growing emphasis on multimedia experiences and hands-on exhibits over static displays of objects since the interwar period. While obvious to many historians of technology, the editors trace this shift's historical roots in Behind the Exhibit through a dozen case studies. The book starts by discussing the display of chemical heritage and the controversy between the French and Germans in the late 1860s over Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier's role in the history of chemistry. Next, we see how Germany, Russia, and America attempted to claim electrical telegraphy as their own, despite the technology being the result of cumulative progress (chapter 2).

The strength of the volume is the section on the interwar period. The Catalan forge was seen by some engineers as a symbol of the "technological soul" of the Catalan nation dating back to the Middle Ages (chapter 3). Unfortunately for the Catalans, the Spanish government chose to "de-Catalanize" the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition and no traces of Catalonia's metallurgical past appeared. Other European efforts to link science and technology to nations and regions were more successful. The book also discusses the First National Exhibition of the History of Science held in Florence that same year (chapter 4). It led to the establishment of a national Museum of the History of Science, now the Museo Galileo, in 1930. Italians also looked to world's fairs to project their national achievements on an international stage. At the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago, some of the replicas and scale models exhibited by the Italians would later enter the collections of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago as well as the National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan. [End Page 1269]

The Chicago fair emphasized modern science, spectacle, and the importance of experiences. It showcased the first modern planetarium in the United States, which took the form of an astronomical museum, housing a significant collection of historical scientific instruments (chapter 6). This dual approach is what we see in many museums today. The book then discusses the establishment of the Palais de la Découverte against the background of the 1937 Paris International Exposition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life (chapter 7). The vision for the Palais was a permanent museum dedicated to modern science, a forerunner of a modern science center. As the Hall of Science at the Chicago fair had influenced the Palais, we can point to a web of influences that this book helps identify.

The book also examines the Italian Exhibition of Universal Science set to open in 1942 as part of the Universal Exposition of Rome, which then became part of a permanent science museum (chapter 8). Although the expo was ultimately cancelled, the grand plans nevertheless show the scale of Mussolini's ambitions and what a science museum in Rome would have looked like. The link between science and ideology was further emphasized during the Cold War.

The final part of the book is devoted to the post-World War II period. The book covers the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) as an example of the reinvention of the science museum in the 1960s, in contrast with the Exploratorium in San Francisco (chapter 9...


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