Books for the News, History

Who needs a world’s fair?

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Since it’s inception in 1851 the international exposition—now usually known as the World’s Fair—has showcased some of the most groundbreaking, and occasionally prolific, technological inventions and advancements. From the debut of the Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, to the modern television displayed at a 1939-40 exhibition in New York, for most of the twentieth century the World’s Fair served as the public’s window on the future.
An international exhibition is currently being held in Shanghai, China and held its opening ceremonies on May 1st. But in this day and age, when the internet can put us in touch with the latest technologies and trends without ever having to leave the house, some are asking whether the World’s Fair still has anything left to offer—including All Things Considered host Robert Siegel who recently posed the question to historian Robert W. Rydell who has written several books on the history of the Word’s Fair including All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 and World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions.
From the interview:

SIEGEL: … We live in times when even satellite television is old technology compared to the Internet. Who needs a world’s fair, and what could possibly be seen in Shanghai that a thousand times more people can’t learn about online?
Mr. RYDELL: Well, that’s a very good question. I would say, first of all, I think many Americans believe world’s fairs no longer exist. And Shanghai is proof positive to the contrary. There will be anywhere from 75 to 100 million people who actually go to this fair in Shanghai.

There is something about experiencing these fairs that you don’t get from the Internet. You can certainly look at photographs, but it’s a difference between watching your favorite baseball team on TV and actually being in the stadium. The experience, in many ways, is just so overwhelming, and that’s what a lot of people, I think, forget about these things.

I think what we count on the world’s fair to do probably has less to do with specific technologies than it does with overall design. So, what we would see or what people can discover at the Shanghai exposition is a way people are imagining a city, what a city might look like. In 1893, it’s the white city. Think of the great beaux arts architecture of so many of the public buildings that date from the early 20th century. You look to world’s fairs, I think, for the bigger picture, and that’s what makes them so interesting.

Listen to the rest of the interview on the NPR website.
Rydell is also the author of Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922 in which discussion of the World’s Fair plays a significant role. You can read an excerpt on the press website.