World’s fairs: Past, present ... future?


Seattle’s Space Needle, “America’s Eiffel Tower,” says Greenhalgh, was constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair. (Photo by Kevin P. Casey/Bloomberg News)

World’s fairs are so expansive. What was the spark that made you want to take on this vast topic?


The UAE pavilion is pictured at the site of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai on April 29, 2010. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

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.


Greehalgh’s book "Fair World: A History of World's Fairs and Expositions from London to Shanghai 1851-2010." (Courtesy of Papadakis Publisher)

Author Paul Greenhalgh thinks Detroit’s time for a world’s fair has come. (Andy Crouch)

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?


London’s Millennium dome in 1998. (John Stillwell/AFP)

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