World's Fairs

von by Alexander C.T. Geppert Original aufOriginal in German, angezeigt aufdisplayed in English
PublishedErschienen: 2018-01-15
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    As a communication medium, the world's fairs of the 19th century were the contemporary equivalent of the present-day world wide web. Given their enormous attendance figures, which far exceeded the reach of all other media, the historical significance of international exhibitions can hardly be overstated. From the opening of the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations" in London in May 1851 onward, large expositions were held periodically in almost all major cities. The aim was to present to an international audience a miniature version of the world that was as true to scale as possible, present only for a limited time at a clearly defined site within the ever-changing host city. This article gives an overview of the historical development of this 19th century mass- and meta-medium, describes its most significant forms, functions and effects, and discusses the extent to which world's fairs in Europe have decreased in impact since the beginning of the 20th century.

    InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents

    Introduction: Global Mass Spectacle of the 19th Century

    The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, opened by Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and her German husband Prince Albert (1819–1861) on May 1, 1851 in 's Hyde Park can be regarded as the first large international exposition of the modern typeEröffnung der ersten Weltausstellung in London 1851 IMG. Never before had so many people of different nationalities gathered in a place like this – the made-for-purpose Crystal Palace.1 The trade fairs that had taken place from the Middle Ages onward had served purely commercial purposes, while the industrial exhibitions held from the late-18th century onward were not aimed at an international audience. The Great Exhibition, by contrast, marked the beginning of a rapid development, which saw large expositions growing into the most popular and effective mass medium of the 19th century, and by no means only in . World's fairs were also held in the (from 1876), and soon after in (from 1880). In the second half of the 20th century (from 1970), they also took place in . Exhibitions were viewed as markers of progress, prosperity, civilization and modernity. They presented these qualities to a mass public through a mixture of "didacticism" and "worldliness". Such a combination was often discussed disparagingly but was nonetheless viewed as indispensable.2 As elaborately arranged spectacles of societal self-representation and highly regarded sites for the interaction between people and world-wide exchange of ideas and goods, world's fairs were of global historical significance particularly during the second half of the 19th century.

    The international universal exhibitions of the 19th century claimed to be encyclopaedic in scope and documentary in approach. Their aim was to present a miniature version of the world that was as true to scale as possible, present only for a limited time at a clearly defined site within the host city. Organized at regular intervals, these exhibitions saw objects considered representative of their places of origin brought together from all continents of the world. Artefacts were displayed in accordance with repeatedly re-configured classificatory systems, which became ever more complex and regionally-specific.3 World's fairs were visited by millions of people hailing from the respective host city itself, the region and the nation as well as unprecedented numbers of international visitors. In this way, they experimented with possible forms of a future mass and global society. World's fairs thus inhabited a space between locality, nationality and globality. They were also characterized by a decidedly European dimension: The expositions held in Europe enabled "Europe" to be experienced culturally in a new cohesive form. World's fairs depended not only on the prerequisites of global travel and transportation, global communication and a global society, but they also played a central role in their very formation. In the context of the so-called first wave of globalization, expositions actively promoted and accelerated international entanglement.

    The stylistic vocabulary of the new medium initially developed in the context of intra-European competition between capital cities – initially between London (1851, 1862) and (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900, 1937), and subsequently between Paris and (1888, 1897, 1910, 1935, 1958). Later in the 19th century, large expositions were also held in (1873), (1885, 1894, 1930), (1888, 1929/1930), (1884, 1911), (1905), (1906) and elsewhere. Their infrastructural requirements alone dictated that large expositions were an exclusively urban phenomenon. The first two European world expositions not held in their respective capital cities were the "Exposición universal de Barcelona" in 1888 and the "Exposition universelle et internationale" in Liège in 1905. Besides and , became an influential host country, though it has yet to receive the attention it deserves in the burgeoning exhibition historiography. , by contrast, played a lesser role among the hosts of large exhibitions prior to the opening of EXPO 2000 in on May 31, 2000. With the exception of the Trade Fair held in Treptower Park in 1896, all attempts to organize a world's fair in Germany – even in the imperial capital – failed, though various political circles repeatedly called for such an event, particularly after the unification of 1871.4

    In the period prior to the Second World War, important expositions were also held outside Europe, for instance in (1853/1854, 1939/1940), (1876, 1926), (1879/1880), (1880/1881, 1888/1889), (1893, 1933/1934), (1904), (1894, 1915, 1939/1940) and elsewhere. The Centennial Exhibition which took place in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate the centenary of the American Declaration of Independence demonstrated for the first time the technological and industrial might of the United States, resurgent after the Civil War. In retrospect, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago proved the defining moment for the USA, just as the Great Exhibition had been for Great BritainRiesenrad auf der World's Columbian Exposition 1893  IMG. Opened just one year after the 400th anniversary celebration of the "discovery" of America, it set the standards by which the success or failure of all subsequent large expositions were judged.5 Within a short time, a repeatedly renewed "world wide web" of inherently transient great exhibitions (British English), expositions universelles (French), world's fairs (American English) and Weltausstellungen (German) covered the western hemisphere. Participation promised to elevate each visitor to a cosmopolitan, each host city to a global city, and each host country to a "world power".6

    According to contemporary estimates, around 415 million people visited the international expositions held in Europe between 1851 and 1958. The period between 1885 and the Second World War accounts for three quarters of this figure. More than 110 million people attended the five Expositions universelles in Paris, which were held in set intervals of eleven years – the so-called règle des onze années – on the Champ de Mars in the centre of the French capital. The last in this series, the Exposition universelle et internationale de Paris 1900, set a record of over 50 million visitors, not surpassed until Expo 67 in . This figure corresponded to the entire population of the in 1900 and was considerably more than the population of France itself at that time. Prior to the introduction of television in the 1930s, no other medium reached a larger, more cosmopolitan and more heterogeneous audience Anzahl der in Europa, den USA und dem Rest der Welt abgehaltenen internationalen Ausstellungen IMG[Besucherzahlen internationaler Ausstellungen in Millionen IMG].7

    Forms: The World in the City

    World's fairs were characterized by a curious mixture of fleeting transience and legacy-creating endurance. As the duration of the expositions was usually limited to six months – over the summer and into the autumn – it was clear prior to opening that the majority of the specially constructed pavilions and architectural ensembles would be demolished after the event's closure. Consequently, the sites and buildings created for these occasions were transitory by character. This had a defining influence on the expositions, as the rapidly expanding exhibition sites had to be written into the urban fabric of the host city and adapted to its infrastructureLes Expositions universelles 1855–1900 IMG. Even though world's fairs tended not to leave much in the way of material remnants in situ, lasting legacies were nonetheless created and local traditions established. The most famous European remnants are the Crystal Palace, rebuilt in south London in 1854 after the end of the Great Exhibition but completely destroyed by fire in 1936, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, known to contemporaries as the tour de trois cents mètres. Built as the main attraction of the Exposition universelle held in 1889 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, it was decided – contrary to original plans – not to demolish the tower because it had become so popular with the public, despite strong initial criticism. The Eiffel Tower remained the highest building in the world until 1930View of Eiffel Tower and Exposition Buildings. Thus, the omnipresent tower that dwarfed everything else went from being the symbolic focal point of the exposition to the visual focal point of the French capital, and subsequently the marker and universal symbol of the whole nation. The Eiffel Tower was declared a protected monument in 1964.8

    It was not just the size of the exposition site that grew from one world's fair to the next. The number of exhibitors, expenses, sections and visitors also increased with each event. Celebrated as a peaceful competition between the nations for "peace, progress and prosperity", each exposition sought to outdo the preceding ones.9 Indeed, contemporary critics repeatedly discussed whether any subsequent fair could possibly be grander. In the early expositions, exhibitors' displays were accommodated under the roof of a single exhibition hall such as the Crystal Palace in London, the oval Palais in Paris (1867) or the enormous Ausstellungspalast (1873) in Vienna, which was arranged around a central rotunda. However, the so-called pavilion principle was introduced in Philadelphia in 1876 and subsequently continued in Europe two years later with the Rue des Nations in Paris. The encyclopaedic scope was now overlaid with a national principle. Each participating nation was asked to represent itself by building its own national pavilion, and thus became responsible for creating its own attraction. After decades of rapid but chaotic development in the organization of such international exhibitions, on November 22, 1928 an agreement anchored in international law was reached. It made adherence to the pavilion principle a prerequisite for a world's fair to be considered within the top-echelon, so-called "first category", of expositions. The agreement also included the introduction of a binding procedure for the application and awarding of such a status. In 1931 the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) was established in Paris to implement this procedure.10 While the boundaries between the multitude of global, industrial, commercial, colonial and other forms of large urban exhibitions with national, bi-national and international participation had previously been anything but clearly defined, the new agreement established a firm distinction between "universal" world's fairs and international exhibitions, which were to focus on a specific topic. The former are held every five years and are characterized by the pavilion principle and an unlimited physical exhibition area. The latter occur only in the period between two world's fairs, their respective exhibition space is limited to a maximum of 25 hectares, and the host country provides the pavilions. Both exposition types, world's fairs and international exhibitions, must be officially recognized by the BIE.11

    Functions: National Prestige, Imperial Propaganda and International Power Politics

    Contemporary commentators identified world's fairs as "nodes in the course of history" and crystallization points in the modernization process, at which global progress was made manifest in material form.12 Critical historical events, processes and debates became visible to a global public at these exhibitions. Their reception was shaped by the specific rules regarding representation and display that had developed from the mid-19th century and adapted to the resulting media standards of the world's fair system. The sociocultural effects attributed to expositions went far beyond merely gathering objects and displaying them to a mass public at regular intervals. Designed and held as local events, for national actors they represented highly complex sites of exchange and encounter, but also of comparison and adjustment, differentiation and competition. Numerous international congresses and scientific conferences, which discussed such questions as the standardization of measurements, weights and patents, were held in cooperation with world's fairs.

    Notwithstanding the importance of symbolic and representational aspects, the geopolitical and economic dimensions of these expositions should not be underestimated. World's fairs not only oscillated between locality, nationality and internationality, but also between economic cooperation, confrontation and competition on the one hand, and Eurocentrism, cosmopolitanism and colonialism on the other. By trying to prove the superiority of western technology, economics and "civilization", 19th-century expositions displayed the universalist claims of the west.13 They reflected, generated and reinforced imperial orders of knowledge and power. This became particularly apparent in efforts to present not only the latest technological advances of the present, but also "alien" civilizations and "exotic" peoples. Thus, exhibitions sought to bring colonial alterity to the domestic public. The "Colonial and Indian Exhibition" held in 1886 in South Kensington in London was the first in a half-century long series of British expositions exclusively focused on imperialism.14 During the same period, so-called native villages were soon part of the expositions' standard repertoire. The businessman and zoo founder Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913) became a global market-leader in this area, providing "wild" animals and people not only for travelling ethnographic showcases, but also for larger national and international exhibitions all around the worldHuman Zoo at Hagenbeck's Tierpark 1909 IMG. These "native villages" with their human exhibits proved to be of central importance for the overall effect of these exhibitions because their presence gave the necessary air of authenticity to everything else on display. "Wild" people could not be reproduced artificially and were thus viewed as a guarantee of the spectacle's overall veracity.15

    As grand "marriages of art and industry" (Raphael Samuel), large international exhibitions played a significant and often underestimated economic role, particularly compared to the singular focus much academic research has had on the ethnographic dimension of the exhibition phenomenon. "Weltausstellungen sind die Wallfahrtsstätten zum Fetisch Ware" is a classic quote from Walter Benjamin (1892–1940).16 New commercial and industrial products, technologies and inventions were often displayed for the first time at expositions. These included cast-iron blocks by Krupp, which increased markedly in size over the years, as well as every conceivable type of machine and the – up to 1900 – inevitable giant cannon. From the perspective of the state, world's fairs served to promote "industriousness" and consumption, but also played a role in the cultivation of tastes. From an early stage, excursions were organized to these exhibitions, and special programmes provided stipends for workers, craftsmen as well as officials, and subsequently also school pupils, to attend. These visitors were then tasked with familiarizing themselves with the latest technological advances at the exhibition in order to report on them in detail after their return. Prizes and commendations awarded to individual exhibits by a specialist jury of host country representatives were much sought after by commercial exhibitors, as they proved to the domestic market that their products outshone any international competitors. The gold medal that the Beck brewery in Bremen won in Philadelphia in 1876 still adorns the label of every bottle of its beer.

    Effects: Architecture, Urban Construction and Mega-Events

    Present-day debates about the sense and purpose of so-called mega-events, their sustainability and subsequent utility, were not prominent in the 19th century exhibitionary deliberations. Large exhibitions were not planned as part of a future urban landscape until the middle of the 20th century, as evidenced by the construction of the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, the centrepiece of the 1951 "Festival of Britain". However, earlier world's fairs also proved to be effective catalysts of urban development and city planning. At the Viennese exhibition of 1873, as-yet-completed sections and monumental buildings of the Ring Road complex were presented to an international public. The 1888 Exposición universal in Barcelona also provided an impetus for the completion of ongoing city building projects in order to impress the international exposition public.17

    As exhibition sites became larger and increasingly complex, there was an urgent need to provide an overview of the whole in order to make sites visually accessible to visitors. This resulted in the prevalence of so-called "vertigo machines" such as viewing towers, giant Ferris wheels and hot-air balloons, which as "viewing apparatuses" helped to re-establish the unity of the spectacle in the perception of the observer.18 Increasing size, scale and heterogeneity also necessitated the provision of dining options on site, the direction of enormous flows of visitors on the site through inventions such as moving walkways and new modes of frictionless transportation to and from the exhibition site. World's fairs in Chicago (1893), Paris (1900) and Montreal (1967) provided the incentive for the construction of the first underground railway systems in those cities.

    Finally, numerous complex institutional connections can be identified, both between world's fairs and museums, and also with mega-events such as the Olympic Games, resurrected in 1896. The close relationship between exhibitions and museums as similarly visualizing institutions, which however differ in terms of their time frames – exhibitions display their exhibits for a limited time period, while museums aim at permanence – can be traced back to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Using some of the exhibits and the profits of the fair, the South Kensington Museum opened the following year in the direct vicinity of Hyde Park. It was the forerunner of the present-day Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum, facing each other on Exhibition Road. There was a similar pattern to the foundation of the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1893, as well as the 1931 Exposition coloniale in Paris which led to the creation of the Musée des arts africains et océaniens. The second, third and fourth Olympic Games of the modern age (Paris 1900; St. Louis 1904; London 1908) also took place as part of large international exhibitions and were integrated as sub-events. Such a close institutional connection between world's fairs and the Olympic Games, however, did not continue in the further course of the 20th century. Separated organizationally and functionally, the Olympics have long replaced expositions as focal points of transient global attention.19

    Conclusion: Loss of Significance in the 20th Century

    World's fairs took their visitors on imaginary journeys in time and space. While the expositions of the 19th century were defined by the establishment and canonisation of the form as well as a specific "exhibition language" which incorporated ever more areas, at the beginning of the 20th century exhibitions returned to specialization and decentralization, at times reminiscent of early pre-1851 events. There is now a widely-shared consensus that large international exhibitions experienced a noticeable diminution of cultural impact over the course of the 20th century, at least in and the United States. Only the exact point in time when this process of decline began continues to be a subject of debate. From the beginning, world's fairs were reported on and critiqued extensively, but in the context of increasing competition from film, radio and television and simplified travel options from the 1880s onward, they entered a discursive crisis. From at least the turn of the century, expositions were no longer viewed as the leading meta-medium of modern civilization. This phenomenon came to be known as "exhibition fatigue". Understood in both the active and passive sense, such "fatigue" was attributed to the oversupply of national and international exhibitions, which resulted – the interpretation continued – in declining interest among the public and consequently in the declining effectiveness of the medium as a means of promoting progress.20

    This widely held view was paradoxical. In spite of their obvious loss of significance, important world's fairs nevertheless continued to be held throughout the 20th century, attracting millions of visitors. A prominent example is the last of the great Parisian expositions, the Exposition internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne of 1937, particularly memorable for the highly symbolic confrontation between the German National Socialist and Soviet pavilions beneath the Trocadéro on the right bank of the SeineExposition Internationale Paris 1937, Vue d'Ensemble Prise du Trocadero.21 From the 1939/40 world's fair in New York onward, which used the advertising slogan "Building the world of tomorrow with the tools of today", there was a perceptible reorientation from grand achievements towards progress considered critical for the future.22 Futuristic topics such as future means of transportation, the peaceful use of nuclear energy and in particular spaceflight played a central role in world's fairs in the post-war period, for example in Brussels (1958), (1962), Montreal (1967) and (1970)Atomium: la nuit. This reorientation also manifested itself in the main attractions. The Atomium in Brussels, the Space Needle in Seattle and the Unisphere in New York are still considered symbols of an optimistic and future-prone atomic space age.

    Whether the historical argument is correct that world's fairs have lost much of their function and significance in a transformed media landscape is in the eye of the observer. Critics would argue that they have long since outlived their purpose as a consequence of increasing specialization, commercialization and disneyfication in the information and communication age. From a western standpoint, their loss in standing is unmistakeable, but from a global perspective it appears more like a shift in significance. The first German world's fair, EXPO 2000 in Hanover, was generally viewed as an expensive failure in spite of all efforts towards sustainability and re-usability, given that the number of visitors fell far short of what was expected. The United States completely cancelled its membership of the BIE in 2001, in line with a decision of Congress from 1998 which forbid the future use of tax revenue for representing the country at exhibitions abroad, and has not participated in any bidding process to hold an exposition since. Yet this decline is in stark contrast with the enormous success of non-western exhibitions over the last 40 years. With nearly 65 million and 73 million visitors respectively, Expo '70 in Osaka in Japan and Expo 2010 in in China were by far the two best-attended world's fairs of all time. In early 1998, Roger de Weck (born 1953), then editor-in-chief of ZEIT, reacted specifically to the accusation that large international exhibitions are anachronistic and obsolete – an accusation that had been repeatedly made since the late-19th century. He suggested that it would be better to simply transfer EXPO 2000 to the internet, the early-21st-century media equivalent of the world's fair.23

    Alexander C.T. Geppert



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    1. ^ Still the best work on the Great Exhibition: Haltern, Londoner Weltausstellung 1971; cf. Haltern, "Welt als Schaustellung" 1973.
    2. ^ Lessing, Das halbe Jahrhundert 1900, p. 18: "nicht nur der Mittelpunkt der Belehrung und des friedlichen Wettstreites, sondern auch der Mittelpunkt der Weltlust ... für die ganze Welt." ("not only the centre of instruction and peaceful competition, but also the centre of worldliness ... for the whole world.")
    3. ^ On the history of classification systems: Benedict, Anthropology of World's Fairs 1983, pp. 27–41. While four main categories sufficed at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the exhibits were divided into 26 different categories at the Weltausstellung in Vienna in 1873, in 1900 in Paris there were 18 categories.
    4. ^ Geppert, Weltstadt für einen Sommer 2007, pp. 434–436; Geppert, Fleeting Cities 2010, pp. 16–61; Steinmetz, Empire in Three Keys 2017. On the history of German self-representation at international expositions in foreign countries, see: Sigel, Exponiert 2000, particularly pp. 21–24.
    5. ^ Rydell, All the World's a Fair 1984, p. 71.
    6. ^ Naumann, Ausstellungsbriefe 1909, p. 28.
    7. ^ Geppert, Fleeting Cities 2010, pp. 7–8; for a pertinent overview, Geppert, Fleeting Cities 2010, pp. 250–255. All visitor numbers are based on contemporary statistical data, which was collected by various methods with varying degrees of accuracy.
    8. ^ Loyrette, La Tour Eiffel 1992, and Thompson, "The Symbol of Paris" 2000, p. 1130; both make reference to Barthes, Tour Eiffel 1964, the locus classicus of all Eiffel Tower semiotics, and Meissonier, Protestation contre la Tour de M. Eiffel 1887.
    9. ^ Moonen, Exhibitions 1883, p. 8; Cauter, Panoramic Ecstasy 1993, p. 7.
    10. ^ Protocol 1951, Section II, Article 4; cf. also Scherpenberg, Weltausstellungen 2000, pp. 24–25.
    11. ^ Cf. Galopin, Expositions internationales 1997 and [11/01/2018]. The next world exposition will take place in Dubai in 2020 with the theme "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" ( [11/01/2018]). The location for 2025 has not yet been determined (as of December 2017); Baku (Azerbaijan), Osaka (Japan), Paris (France) and Yekaterinburg (Russia) have bid to host the event.
    12. ^ Lothar Bucher, quoted in Lessing, Das halbe Jahrhundert 1900, p. 7.
    13. ^ Osterhammel, Verwandlung der Welt 2009, p. 41.
    14. ^ Mathur, Living Ethnological Exhibits 2000, and Hoffenberg, Empire on Display 2001, pp. 49–55, 148–151.
    15. ^ In academic discourse, these so-called ethnologic showcases and native villages have received particular attention over the last number of years due to the renewed interest in colonialism and can almost be described as over-researched; cf. Corbey, Ethnographic Showcases 1993, and Geppert, Welttheater 2002, pp. 34–36.
    16. ^ Benjamin, Paris 1982, p. 50 ("World exhibitions were places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity." Benjamin, Paris 1969, p. 167).
    17. ^ Espuche, Modernization 1991, p. 148.
    18. ^ Cauter, Panoramic Ecstasy 1993, pp. 17–20.
    19. ^ Essex / Chalkley, Olympic Games 1998, p. 192; Chalkley / Essex, Urban Development 1999, p. 370; and Gold / Gold, Cities of Culture 2005.
    20. ^ From the copious body of sources, cf. just Simmel, Berliner Gewerbe-Ausstellung 1896, p. 59; Witt, Pariser Weltausstellungsbriefe 1900, p. 1; Paquet, Ausstellungsproblem in der Volkswirtschaft 1908, pp. 287–297; Sombart, Ausstellung 1908, p. 254. In greater detail: Geppert, Fleeting Cities 2010, pp. 206–216.
    21. ^ See Udovički-Selb, Facing Hitler's Pavilion 2012.
    22. ^ Nye, Ritual Tomorrows 1992, p. 4.
    23. ^ Weck, In Hannover? 1998.

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    : World's Fairs, in: Europäische Geschichte Online (EGO), hg. vom Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2018-01-15. URL: URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2017103009 [JJJJ-MM-TT][YYYY-MM-DD].

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