Bob Rydell on world’s fairs past and present…

It’s only fitting that the first chat on the Designing Tomorrow blog is with Robert Rydell, Professor of History and Director of the Montana State University Humanities Institute.  Not only is Rydell a preeminent scholar and historian of world’s fairs—publications include All the World’s a Fair (1987); World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions (1993); and Fair America (2000)—but he also worked closely with former chief curator Howard Decker to lay the groundwork for the Designing Tomorrow exhibition now on view at the Museum.

Next Monday, October 25, Bob will be at the National Building Museum with Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley and Jack Masey for the public program “21st Century World’s Fairs,” where they will be discussing the past, present, and future of world expositions. Read more about the program and register here.

We wanted to ask Rydell a few questions about what drew him into the world of world’s fairs.

National Building Museum (NBM):  So why world’s fairs?

Robert Rydell (RR): I first became interested in world’s fairs when I was an undergraduate student at Berkeley.  I had been tasked by one of my instructors with finding out about the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.  I went to the library, found some souvenir albums with photographs of buildings, technologies, etc.  But what stopped me in my tracks were images of Africans, American Indians, and Samoans who clearly weren’t at these fairs as tourists.  The captions to the photographs made clear that these people were living human exhibits.  What was going on here?  That question led me on my trek through world’s fair literatures–books, postcards, music, movies, etc–and my ongoing effort to make sense of these events as formative of the modern world.

Puck cartoon, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

Cartoon, Grand finale of the stupendous spectacular success, "Uncle Sam's show," by Frederick Burr Opper. From Puck, 1893 Oct. 30, p. 314. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-2097.

NBM: It seems that the fairs of the 1930s were somewhat of a tipping point in terms of these kinds of exhibits.  Many fairs of that era had both officially-sponsored foreign pavilions as well as ‘Streets of the World’-type concessions.  But the balance clearly shifted in the expositions that followed World War II.

RR: By the 1960s, with decolonization and the Civil Rights Movement, the structure of world’s fairs began to reflect changes in thinking about the centrality of “race” for understanding human progress.  The Belgian Congo exhibit at the 1958 Brussels Fair was probably the last gasp of the older style ethnological village.  As newly independent nations began to think about self-representation at fairs, they began to craft identities that centered on their role as tourist destinations and modernizing nations within global markets. Increasingly, an emphasis on cultural diversity, not racial hierarchies, took hold at world’s fairs.

Generally (think about the Vancouver fair), this insistence on diversity and respect for cultural difference resulted from demands of indigenous people for inclusion on their terms.  I think it is accurate to say that anthropologically-validated ideas of racial hierarchy have largely disappeared from world expos, but I would want to know much more about how specific ethnic groups within nations have been represented (or not) at these events.

NBM: What contemporary expositions have you visited?

RR: I saw the Seville fair [1992] while it was under construction, the Lisbon exposition [1998] after it concluded, and Shanghai three years ago just as the first construction was underway.  The fair I have spent the most time viewing was the 2005 exposition in Nagoya where I served as a member of the international jury.

Recycling at Expo 2005 in Nagoya, Japan

Chopstick and sorted trash recycling at Expo 2005 in Nagoya, Japan. Flickr user Tokyo JapanTimes.

NBM: Any favorite experiences?

RR: I must say that my favorite experience was the tour I received of the recycling operation at the 2005 fair [Nagoya, Japan].  It was impressive to see how an expo could model principles of environmental remediation.

As much as I enjoy contemporary world expos, I’m still, at heart, a historian with over 200 fairs that were held before the Second World War that still have a claim on my attention.

NBM: Do you have any other personal connections that contributed to your interest in world’s fairs?

RR: As a kid, I was always fascinated by an old, tarnished spoon that my mother had among her small collection of keepsakes.  As far as I was concerned, the spoon was simply a curiosity.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned my great grandparents had purchased it for my grandmother as a souvenir at the 1898 Omaha world’s fair.  My father had no artifacts, only memories about sneaking into the Streets of Paris at the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition to see Sally Rand.

Somehow, I’m sure, the spoon and the stories about Sally Rand’s ostrich feathers prepared me to think that world’s fairs somehow mattered to people’s lives.  I’m still struck by how much they really mattered, especially to nations that hosted them, to the architects who designed them, to the people who visited them, and to the people who were exhibited at them.

Streets of Paris, Chicago, 1933

Crowd gathered around performers in the Streets of Paris exhibit, Chicago, 1933. HALIC, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Digital File #51249 © The Art Institute of Chicago.

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