World’s fairs may sound like a thing of the past for some, but the ideas and innovations that have been presented in the exhibitions that involve entire nations have routinely set the stage for the future of Earth. In his new book “Fair World: A History of World’s Fairs and Expositions from London to Shanghai 1851–2010,” Paul Greenhalgh, former president of Corcoran Gallery of Art, dove into researching the fairs of the past 160 years. The book discusses the ideas they spurned, the landmarks that stemmed from them (Eiffel Tower, anyone?) and how cities were put on the map because of them. Greenhalgh now resides in London working at the Sainsbury Centre. He sat down with Arts Post to talk about the surprising discrimination that could be found in fairs past, and which city he thinks deserves a fair as the ultimate comeback. Here’s our edited conversation:
World’s fairs are so expansive. What was the spark that made you want to take on this vast topic?
I wrote a book on that subject 20-odd years ago, when very few people were studying world’s fairs. Everybody was really focused on works of art, and very few people were focused on how they were displayed or what the institutions were that presented them. I noticed [the book] hung around forever. I saw one day on Amazon it was up to $1,500 second-hand. I started working on another book which brought the story up to the present day. The first book only went up to the New York World’s fair of 1939. This book comes up to 2010 — there was a big show in Shanghai last year.
How do the books differ?
The racial dynamic of these exhibitions became incredibly interesting. When they first began in the 19th century, they were hugely based on empire and colonial expansion. They became the only places you could see art from Africa or Native America, or the Oceanic Highlands. It was how all the great artists — Picasso, Gauguin — found out about Africa and so forth. They were hugely important for that.
The other thing the fairs did, which was weird and extraordinary, is that the British actually brought people from those countries to the fair. [The] British didn’t have have people from anywhere beside England until after the second World War. The Senegal village appeared in London, and formed their own company. [They] toured around as an attraction, around Europe right into the 20th century.
The Americans struggled with this because they had the Native American population, and they had the African American population. These were not groups of people they’re bringing from abroad. The African Americans struggled to have a right to build their own buildings on the site, and to be represented. And wise, the Native Americans struggled and largely lost that struggle until well into the ’60s.
In the 21st century, do world’s fairs matter?
There was a time when you had to travel to a world’s fair to see what was going on in the world. It wasn’t just art; it was all the sciences; it was politics.You really got to see the world, and they spent a fortune doing it. Then came the film industry, radio, and quickly T.V.
Some of the world’s fairs after the Second World War were unbelievably important. Seattle largely got invented through its World’s Fair. The Space Needle was built in ’62 for their fair. It was really a Midwestern town up until that point. The U.S. want to show the country was not behind the Soviet Union. It was at that moment when they decided that Seattle was going to be a high-tech city.
What city in America do you think a world’s fair would best fit?
I would do a World’s Fair in Detroit. It would be a different kind of World’s Fair. It would focus on things like skill training and regenerating the city. Rather than building hundreds of new buildings, you would fix all the buildings that have fallen into disrepair. One of the big angles would be music. It would be the great music fair; it would clearly be a big art fair; it would be an architecture fair. It would be about rebuilding all those beautiful, art-deco buildings which are falling apart.
However, the U.S. does not belong to the international body that controls the world’s fairs, the Bureau International des Expositions. If you don’t get permission from BIE, all the other countries won’t show up.
The Americans should rejoin BIE, and there should be an unbelievable expo. If you got it right, it would change the city.
Has there ever been a completely, just totally horrible fair?
Maybe the worst world’s fair ever — and it’s hotly competed for — is probably the one in England in 2000. The British decided it was only Britain, and nobody showed up. It was an economic disaster. They were so arrogant to think they could do that.
How do you think world’s fairs will do in the 21st century?
The reality is if it brought 200 nations and if it really aimed for international collaboration it could have been a different story — perhaps a world’s fair that had all the Arab countries in it, including Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan. We all know that the global situation economically in military terms is really scary, But culturally, we all love globalism. We all love that collaboration. The world’s fair of the future could be easily a peacemaker, I would say. I think if they do what I just said, they’ll come back. They faded, but I think if they become meaningful for people’s lives again, who wouldn’t want a world’s fair?