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What is a World’s Fair Anyway?

Joleen Petroski

When I was a little girl, I heard some fact that the Eiffel Tower was the product of
a World’s Fair in the 1800’s. I briefly imagined a great gathering where all countries
came together to understand each other and have fun, like the state fairs I used to go to. A
few years later in high school, I saw a documentary about Barcelona and how the city’s
structure had been changed to accommodate a World’s Fair. I thought it was such a
shame that we didn’t have something like that in our time. Other than these two
instances, I never heard anything else about World’s Fairs.
So this past April I received an e-mail describing Drexel’s plan to offer a history
of World’s Fairs class that included a ten day trip to Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. I
was thrilled to have the chance to get to go to a World’s Fair like in the past.
After a little more research, I was surprised to see that World’s Fairs have been
held every few years since 1851. Even more shocking was to find that some were even
held in the United States. Once I was accepted for the class, I told my friends about it and
most of them all had the same response. “What’s a World’s Fair?” My parents only
vaguely recalled hearing some mention of one or two in the past. How come no one ever
heard of them?
Quickly over the summer, World’s Fairs became a common theme in my life.
From preparing for our class presentations and the trip, I was engulfed in Expo info. Just
two weeks before leaving for Shanghai, as I was mentioning the 1876 Philadelphia fair to
a friend, she asked me “What exactly is a World’s Fair?” Since I had taken a ten week
class on World’s Fairs, I opened my mouth to let out the wonderfully articulate answer of
“Um….well, you see…” I panicked and blabbed facts about the first World’s Fair and
how even Chicago had a fair in 1893. I continued with statements such as “There are
like…these national pavilions and they are made by different countries to show whatever
they want to show about their countries” and “The newer fairs have themes and they try
to follow them when they make their pavilions…” but nothing I said really meant
anything to her. I concluded with “I don’t really know…” and a nervous laugh. So much
for being a World’s Fair expert.
It all started with the 1851 London Exhibition. It set the precedent for all the
others, I guess. I’d like to think there were some kind of good intentions to educate
people about other cultures but it all seemed to me like a profit scheme of the
industrialists. More fairs went on to attempt to mimic London’s success and competition
arose between powerful countries to top their predecessors’ fairs. I’d say my favorite fair
was Vienna 1873 because they focused more on culture and education (although they had
to because they lacked industrial development). As they went on, fairs showed themes of
racism and stereotypes. The exhibitions were used to boost nationalistic pride by showing
how much better they were at something than everyone else. Further along the way,
corporations found these fairs to be a great way to advertise. Maybe I was being a little
naïve, but I just felt like they weren’t what I thought they were. None of them seemed
like my childhood fantasy of a World’s Fair. World’s Fairs were described as large
international trade shows, but I didn’t want to accept it.
I was rather pessimistic about the whole meaning and purpose of a World’s Fair
before going to Shanghai but the excitement and curiosity outweighed everything. When
we got there, I still didn’t know what to make of it. Some things I know for sure: it was
big; there were so many people there; there were so many lines! To tell the truth, some
things were just funny. At night, pavilions open their lines and let people file through
quickly. I got the opportunity to go to the Croatia pavilion which had no line at the time. I
walked in and no one was in it. It was just a big vacant hall with projectors showing
images of Croatia. I got to the end of the hallway and there was a sign with an arrow
saying “Continue on to Croatia.” I continued and there was a stand to get your Expo
passport stamped and a small gift shop that sold ties. I left thinking “that was it?” Not all
of them were like that but a handful just seemed to be there for everyone to fill their Expo
passport.
I remember reading about past fairs and how some pavilions would sell authentic
goods from their countries. Before going to the Expo, I just thought the whole idea of that
was kind of cheesy. The theme was “Better City, Better Life,” not “Here is our country
summarized in a gift shop.” I have to say though, that some pavilions had a sort of charm
with their goods. One of my favorite pavilions was Tunisia, a small building that had a
miniature market, a stand where a man sculpted personalized clay pots, and a table with a
man who would chisel the buyer’s name into a metal plate. It was simple and didn’t offer
much towards the Expo theme, but I could see how those kinds of things were popular at
past World’s Fairs.
As we spent more days at the Expo, I loosened up a little and became less
skeptical. I got into the spirit of gaining more passport stamps and just tried to enjoy it for
what it was, whatever it was. I did see some nifty things there, but nothing really stood
out as to what the future would be like. Some buildings had their own generators to
power their lights and displays, while others showed their plans to further develop their
cities. That stuff is pretty cool and all, but I enjoyed the sentimentalism of pavilions such
as Chile the most. Unlike the USA pavilion’s goal to seem like a friendly country that
encouraged the underdog to take the steps to make the world a better place, Chile
challenged the visitors with questions like “Why do I bother living in a city when I don’t
even know my neighbor?” It was more about bettering a city by strengthening relations
and taking time to see your surroundings, much more like my initial conception of a
World’s Fair.
I could go on and on criticizing pavilions and other aspects of the fair, but I’m not
really sure if all of these countries’ interpretations of “Better City, Better Life” would
show what a World’s Fair really is. Yeah, a lot of the things were corny and flashy just to
gain attention. People breezed by the informative panels just to get the pavilion’s stamp.
Most of the things were aimed at a different audience than me. But somehow, now that
I’m back home and away from all that chaos, I wish I was back there to gain a better look
at what more countries had to offer. By the time I got through the line for a pavilion, I
didn’t want to stand there and read all the signs, I just wanted to see something cool. If
you didn’t try too hard, fun things just happened to you. It may be different for the other
fairgoers, just trying to get their stamps, but it really was about the experience.
I’ve been back for a month now and I’m still having dreams about the Expo.
Nearly every dream I’ve had has involved something Expo related. I just can’t let it go!
There really is something about an Expo that makes it more than a trade show. I just can’t
define it.