(Why) Does the World’s Fair Still Matter?

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NY World's Fair 1964 – 1965 (Photo Credit: PLCjr, Flickr Commons)

NY World’s Fair 1964 – 1965 (Photo Credit: PLCjr, Flickr Commons)

Known to the rest of the world as the “International Exposition,” the World’s Fair is a regular gathering of nations, corporations, and citizens dating back to the London Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. Throughout the spring and summer of 2015, the Milan World’s Fair hosted 20 million people and aimed to examine the world’s existential food crisis. The underlying question of the event seemed to be whether or not, amid the pressures of climate change and energy scarcity, the world will be able to feed its projected population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Part trade show, part theater of nationalism, and part techno-utopian fantasyland, the World’s Fair offers a rare opportunity to gather millions of people to debate possible futures. But to what end? Can the World’s Fair adapt into a venue for effectively crafting solutions to modern global challenges? Perhaps stating it more effectively than any other commentator, Pope Francis, at the opening of the Expo, described a “paradox of abundance” that he saw in the entire venture, worrying that “the Expo itself . . . obeys the culture of waste and does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development.”

Three defining trends marked the 1960’s as a turning point, giving rise to a World’s Fair that today is recognizable in form, but vastly different from the “great fairs” of the pre-1964 era. These are the globalization of World’s Fair hosting and participation, the declining influence of the United States, and the shift in thematics away from pre-1964 nationalism/techno-utopianism to the examination of global problems. After 1964, the World’s Fair was no longer just a European-American event. Between 1851 and 1964, World’s Fairs were largely held in the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Starting with Osaka in 1970, a major geographical shift began.  Japan has now hosted four official World’s Fairs (Osaka ’70, Okinawa ’75, Tsukuba ’85, Aichi ’05), South Korea has hosted two (Taejon ’93, Yeosu ’12), and China hosted its first in Shanghai in 2010. Astana, Kazakhstan and Dubai, UAE are slated to host in 2017 and 2020 respectively. These statistics demonstrate the decline and absence of the United States from the scene as a nation actively shaping the World’s Fair’s evolution by providing a host city. The World’s Fair is no longer a strictly Euro-American affair in geography or participation.

The third major shift has to do with the changing themes of World’s Fairs since the 1960s. The themes of trade, Manifest Destiny, progress, futurism, science, technology, and mass production animated the great fairs from 1851 through 1964.  Beginning with the 1967 Montreal Exposition theme of “Man and His World,” topics are now more focused on environmental conservation, energy, sustainable urbanism, and globalization. This is not to say that futurism and technology have disappeared from the genre—but it is clear that rival themes of restraint, ecological fragility, and sustainability of life on Earth have emerged as counterweights to unbridled techno-enthusiasm.  Milan 2015 intensified the expo’s newer ethos, with its theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The thematic exploration began at Pavilion Zero, imagined by designer Michele de Lucchi to represent the Euganean Hills near Padua. Visitors entered a rendering of the Earth’s crust to explore the deep structures of the food system across time, stopping first in the soaring foyer hall styled as the “archives of food memory.” These exhibits brought the progress of mankind face to face with its undesirable contemporary outcomes. A mock-up of subsistence farming, a series of town and city scale models, and a wall of spices evoked the historical duality of scarcity and abundance.

Yet few national pavilions picked up on the theme with much creativity, instead using the opportunity that the Expo provides to unreflectively promote tourism and their national agricultural products. There were exceptions, such as at the United Kingdom’s garden ramble, designed from the honeybee’s perspective and culminating in a rooftop hive-bar. Appropriately, the Holy See Pavilion was one of the few to engage the expo theme in a meaningful way. Poverty and want were presented as global realities that exist amid a world of technology and profit. The visitor who took the time to read the panels and watch the videos on the walls was rewarded with many reasons to both feel bad about the global poverty divide and moved to do something about it.

The interiors of the micro-pavilions in the themed “Cocoa-Chocolate Cluster” were, however, little more than trinket shops with freshly printed investment brochures.

So does the World’s Fair actually still matter? China spent $44 billion dollars on the event in 2010, and Dubai is building a 1000+ acre city in the desert next to its skyline to host the event in 2020. Yet the lack of American domestic participation, coupled with a climate of tepid federal commitment to foreign participation, has left the U.S. on the fringes since the World’s Fair began to evolve in 1964. To physically gather millions of people for an extended discussion of a pressing global challenge is a rarity in a world of constantly divided attention. To continue the evolution, we must question how the World’s Fair can be more impactful in shaping solutions to modern global challenges. Major United Nations meetings could coincide with the World’s Fair, and leading universities could create and deliver curricula based around a given Expo and its theme. Social entrepreneurs should also be more centrally featured and incentivized to build pavilions. Finally, the U.S. government should increasingly seize the opportunity to lead the World’s Fair again.  Policymakers should pursue each of these ideas, especially as it looks more and more likely that the United States will again host a World’s Fair, with exploratory bids coming from Silicon Valley and Minneapolis and enthusiasm building for a return to Philadelphia. If for no other reason than the hope it holds as a venue to show the distance between the real and the possible, the world’s fair has earned the right to persist.

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Scott Knowles is a Professor at Drexel University and historian of modern cities, technology, and public policy. Since 2011, he has been a member of the Fukushima Forum collaborative research community and is also active in the Philadelphia historical community. Knowles' work has appeared in the New York Times and The Hill, and he has discussed history and politics on the Leonard Lopate Show on WYNC radio. His students Jason Ludwig, Christian Parker, Jacob Smith, and Nathaniel Stanton co-authored this piece.

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