From imperial Britain to the rising Middle East, the 170-year-journey of World Expos – The Indian Express

The 170-year-old tradition of world fairs is about to meet with a historic moment as Dubai hosts the World Expo 2020 this year. This is the first time that a country from the Middle East is hosting what is often cited as the world’s ‘first truly global events’. Equally noteworthy is the fact that India, which is yet to host a World Expo, is to have the largest pavilion in Dubai this year. As per reports, the four-storeyed pavilion is designed to showcase 75 years of India’s Independence.
World Expos have historically been a platform for various countries to come together and exhibit innovations and developments in art, science and technology. The first mechanical computer was exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition on Industry and Art and Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone at Philadelphia in 1876. From popcorn to ice cream cones, Coca-Cola, broadcast televisions, touch screens, the x-ray machine and a lot more made their debut at these international events.
But these grand events were not simply selling goods. As the American anthropologist, Burton Benedict notes in his 1983 book, “they were selling ideas: ideas about the relations between nations, the spread of education, the advancement of science, the form of cities, the nature of domestic life, the place of art in society.”
The World Expos were also shaping and reflecting global politics of the times. The transition from the Industrial Revolution to colonisation, American hegemony, Cold War politics to the rise of the global south can be mapped distinctly in the way countries hosted the Expos and the nature of products put on display.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London is often attributed as marking the beginning of a tradition of international exhibitions. The Great Exhibition was organised in response to a highly-successful French Industrial exposition of 1844. For Great Britain, this was a moment to proclaim itself as an industrial leader. The famed Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was built specifically for the purpose of the exhibition. It was attended by approximately six million people, including important personalities of the time like Charles Dickens, George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray.
The Exhibition of 1851 was a landmark moment of sorts. Jayne Luscombe in his essay, World expos and global power relations, explains that following the 1851 exhibition, there was a cascade of similar events that followed in the western and developing world. While 14 international exhibitions were held in the first 30 years after 1851, the figure nearly became three times in the next 30 years. The rush to organise such events was based, as Luscombe explains, on “the success of the 1851 Exhibition with its strong emphasis on industrial development and commercial liberalisation and the exhibition’s perceived benefits of foreign and domestic policy benefits.”
Europeans occupied close to 67 per cent of the world’s land at this time through colonisation and these early exhibitions demonstrated that imperial trading policies were the best means through which one can achieve economic success.
“Large, piled-up ‘trophy’ exhibits in the central avenue revealed the organizers’ priorities; they generally put art or colonial raw materials in the most prestigious place,” writes historian Sophie Fargon in her essay, A compendium of Victorian culture (2000). For instance, visitors could watch the entire process of cotton production from spinning to finished cloth. The famed Kohinoor was one of the most popular attractions and so was the Daria-i-Noor which was also once part of Shah Jahan’s peacock throne. Other colonies, such as New Zealand, were represented by hand-crafted items made by the Maori tribe.
The exhibitions that followed — 1853 New York, 1862 London, 1876 Philadelphia, 1889 Paris, 1897 Brussels, 1900 Paris, 1915 San Francisco and 1933-34 Chicago — were landmarks demonstrating similar themes of industrial development and trade.
More than 30 million visitors are known to have attended the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The Eiffel Tower was created specifically for this event. By 1889 the French Empire was second only to Britain and the colonial section of the Exposition was designed to showcase Paris’s military might to its rivals. The colonial pavilion put on display a fine mix of architecture from the colonies alongside a live demonstration of daily life there.
“In addition to watching Muslims kneel in prayer at the foot of the minaret of the Algerian pavilion, visitors could enter a Kabyle home to observe women weaving at their looms; watch a family of New Caledonian Canaques prepare dinner over an open fire; or poke their head into the tent of a nomadic desert family,” writes Lynn E. Palermo, Professor of French Studies in an article titled,Identity under Construction: Representing the Colonies at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. She notes of the disappointment of the colonised people at the nature of the exhibition. A master jeweller from Senegal is noted to have commented, “We are very humiliated to be exhibited this way, in huts like savages; these straw and mud huts do not give an idea of Senegal.”
The Belgian exhibition of 1894 is yet another case in point. A newly-colonised Congo was put on display with a range of imported products like rubber, ivory, coffee and tea. At the same time a makeshift village was also staged, populated with livestock and about 144 Congolese people.
A new phase in the history of world expositions started out from the middle of the 20th century. The social and material costs of the two World Wars had devastated European economies and lives. Europe was heavily dependent on America to fund the necessary reconstructions. Luscombe in his article explains that American economic power differed from imperial colonisation in the sense that they adopted a leadership role based on “liberalism, capitalism and democracy”.
“During this time there was a change in the spirit of the World Fairs. Their emphasis was shifting away from didactic displays to more immersive, experiential and emotional sites of consumption and labour,” he writes. This drift, he notes, was particularly strong in America.
The New York World Fair of 1939 was centred around the theme of democracy and ‘building the world of tomorrow with the tools of today’. The fair was a platform for high profile commercial organisations to showcase their vision of the future, with the objective being to showcase that capitalism was the only solution for America to come out of the Great Depression. “General Motors’ Futurama was perhaps the most notable exhibit for displaying how American corporations could build a future utopia,” writes Luscombe. “Seated on a conveyor belt, visitors were flown over Normal Bel Geddes’ vision of a future metropolis. Speakers set in the high-backed winged chairs introduced the “World of Tomorrow Seen from the World of Today. A soft whispered narration described this future city, free of slums, and neatly ordered into residential, recreational and commercial districts.”
Yet another exhibit to receive a lot of attention was the Westinghouse Time Capsule which was not to be opened for five millenia. It carried articles of use in American daily life of the 20th century such as a dollar in change, a kewpie doll, a packet of Camel cigarettes, copies of Life Magazine and others.
The 1958 World Fair at Brussels was the first major Expo being held after the Second World War. The exhibition was opened with King Baudouin I issuing a call for world peace and socio-economic progress. The world was divided between two nuclear superpowers by then and both the Soviet Union and the USA were keen to put on display their own scientific and economic progress. The Soviet Union brought a replica of the Sputnik in the Fair, flaunting their achievements in the race to space. The USA continued with its consumerist trends. Their exhibits included a mechanical computer demonstrating a knowledge of history and a colour television.
The post Second World War economic strength of the US was, however, short lived. In the late 20th century, the rate of growth in the American economy saw a decline in comparison to that in Europe and Asia. The most noticeable change in the World Expos in this period was US’ decision to withdraw from the Bureau International des Expositions (the international organisation created in 1928 to supervise world expos) in 2001 after the Congress did not approve membership costs for consecutive years. It rejoined in 2017.
The steady increase in members of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) since the early 21st century is perhaps the most striking effect of a changed global political order. The World Expo at Hanover in 2000 saw the participation of 173 countries, a majority of which were developing countries with no previous experience of a similar exhibition. At present, the BIE consists of 170 members, with Zimbabwe being its most recent entrant. Apart from Dubai, the candidate countries of the 2020 world expo were Thailand, Turkey, Brazil and Russia.
Yet another aspect of this period in the history of World Expos is the focus of themes around global challenges such as sustainability, climate change, the food crisis among others. The expo in Shanghai in 2010, for instance, was themed upon ‘better city, better life’. The theme of Milan in 2015 was ‘feeding the planet, energy for life’ and the theme at Dubai this year is ‘connecting minds, creating the future’, with three sub themes of opportunity, mobility and sustainability.
Countries hosting the expos in recent years have also used the platform to demonstrate their emergence in the power rungs of the new global order. The Expo at Shanghai in 2010 illustrates this most perfectly. With more than 73 million people in attendance and an expenditure worth more than $45 billion, it was one of the largest expos ever. Much like the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the Expo too was an attempt to proclaim the economic and political rise of China in the 21st century.
Further reading
Burton Benedict, The Anthropology of World’s Fairs: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915Lowie Museum of Anthrapology, 1983
Jayne Luscombe, World expos and global power relationsin ‘Power, politics and international events’, Udo Merkel (ed), Routledge, 2013
Sophie Fargon, A compendium of Victorian cultureNature, 2000
Lynn E. Palermo, Identity under Construction: Representing the Colonies at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889in ‘The colour of liberty: Histories of race in France’, Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall (ed.), Duke University Press, 2003
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Adrija RoychowdhuryAdrija writes long, researched features on history, world and national… read more


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