Two days ago, Professor Tori Arpad brought 15 students attending her course on Installation Art to the library to view materials that could stimulate their thinking about the broad topic of this course.  As I was out of the office, it was left to Associate Librarian Nicolae Harsanyi to prepare a display for the group. Dr. Harsanyi made a selection and display of World’s Fairs materials that highlighted the evolution and growth of international exhibitions from 1851 until 1940, focused on the messages the organizers wanted to convey, and demonstrated how these messages can be decoded today through the prism of contemporary scholarship. Here is Dr. Harsanyi’s summary of the materials seen and discussed by the class.

The international exhibition held in London in 1851 is considered to be the first of a succession of World’s Fairs. The exhibition was housed in a huge green-house-like pavilion which informally was called “The Crystal Palace” due to its two main materials of construction: cast iron and glass panels. 

Sir Joseph Paxton, its architect, wanted to demonstrate the virtues of these materials employed in erecting monumental public buildings.

It offered the visitors a breathtaking sense of enclosed space. 

Visitors to these international exhibitions had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the various cultures of the participating countries.

This experience was conveyed not only through the food served in restaurants adjacent to the national pavilions or stands, but also through exhibits and demonstrations of folk arts and crafts, and performances by “native” artists and artisans brought over by the organizers.

 This practice catered to the visitors’ curiosity to discover or encounter other cultures from remote areas of the world, most often deemed “exotic” or “primitive.” These natives were segregated or enclosed in special areas showcasing reconstructed huts and imported exotic goods, thus becoming objectified under the Western visitors’ gaze.  

If the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition was meant to extol the qualities of cast iron as a novel building material, the International exhibition held in Paris in 1889 presented the world with the attributes of steel used in high rise construction.

It was then that the city of Paris was endowed with its symbol: the Eiffel Tower.

The exhibitions held on U.S. soil could be distinguished from those held in Europe by the fact that the United States (rather than being represented by a single pavilion) was embodied by exhibition buildings of the constitutive states. Moreover, various branches of the economy had their own separate pavilions. 

The Paris 1937 Universal exhibition added a new dimension to the concept of World’s Fairs. Reflecting the ever-increasing presence of totalitarian regimes (populating both extremes of the political spectrum), the Parisian exhibition became an arena of ideological confrontation. This confrontation was eloquently symbolized by the pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, physically facing off each other on the main exhibition esplanade.

With the world still enduring the economic doldrums of the Great Depression and democratic governments still reeling as totalitarian regimes made their splash on the world scene, the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940 eschewed the present and took as its theme and motto: “The World of Tomorrow.”  The design of the buildings specially erected in Queens for the exhibition reflected this idea.

In addition to the pavilions of nation-states, the fair reflected the growing influence of large corporations, as companies like General Motors, Firestone, Ford, and others fashioned pavilions to present the new and improved life that their products would bring to the public.   

~ by "The Chief" on January 21, 2011.


  1. I love the World’s Fair materials! They’re so interesting to study. Incidentally, would you know if Wor;d’s Fairs are still held?


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