The Decline of the ‘World Fair’: popular perception lags behind technological significance

‘Connecting minds, creating the future’; this is the motto of the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

Artist's impression of Dubai Expo 2020
Artist’s impression of Dubai Expo 2020

‘How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?’; this  is the key question asked by the organisers ahead of Expo 2017 in Astana.

Both laudable statements that pose intriguing dilemmas for the future of the human race, dilemmas that hopefully we will go some way to resolving via the answers unveiled at the forthcoming Expos.

Yet such noble sentiments do not stir the heart in the same way that the original ‘World Fair’ did. The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the sumptuous, albeit temporary, Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, was an extravaganza of enthusiasm and intellect. Opened by Queen Victoria herself – its organisation having been overseen by her Consort Prince Albert – the Great Exhibition:

became a festival of reconciliation and hope, a visible embodiment of commercial, technological and political Progress, with England consciously leading the world in an unprecedentedly international festival of amity and trade, with 15,000 exhibitors from round the world displaying their wares. (Tombs, 2014, p.466)

This truly international centrepiece was a novelty, a genuinely global phenomenon in the mid-19th century, oft-mimicked but never replicated.

Poster for the Great Exhibition, 1851
Poster for the Great Exhibition, 1851

Held within the astonishing Crystal Palace – a temporary structure four times as long as St Paul’s cathedral and designed by the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener Joseph Paxton – the Great Exhibition attracted average daily crowds of 43,000 during its first six months. More than 6 million would pass beneath its beautiful transept facade before it closed.

It was written about in newspapers around the world, becoming the talk of many a conference, coffee-house and tavern, whilst introducing a breathtaking array of inventions to include the telegraph and vulcanised rubber.

What does one hear of today’s World Fairs? Has there been anything comparable to the enthusiasm surrounding the spectacle at Hyde Park more than a century ago?

Yes, the Expo’s of the 21st century are impressive in their scale and scope, their pavilions encompassing an array of modern architectural designs and engineering techniques. That said, they tend to lack character, staged in clinical, sanitised and nondescript settings, a far cry from the Crystal Palace.

The characterless pavilion at the 2010 Singapore World Expo
The characterless pavilion at the 2010 Singapore World Expo

This soullessness is a pity because the causes and challenges confronted are worthy ones that should receive more attention in the press. Yet going through a laborious bidding process comparable to the Olympics, selected and managed by the monotonously-titled Bureau of International Expositions, is unhelpful.

Why shouldn’t a country display the spontaneity and arrogance of the British Empire in its pomp? What benefit does the seal of officialdom have on the popular perception of such potentially significant events?

Unfortunately, it appears to be simply another testament to the over-bureaucratisation of the world we now live in.

The Great Exhibition was a roar of imperial grandeur that made tangible contributions to technological and scientific development, attracting some of the world’s greatest minds whilst remaining accessible to the common man. Indeed there is a reason why it has been granted the epitaph ‘Great’.

Inside the Great Exhibition
Inside the Great Exhibition

Of course the Crystal Palace is no longer with us. Moved to South London – to an area that now bears its name – it went on to host several other major events during the remainder of the 19th and early 20th century. It was destroyed in a massive fire in 1936, perhaps prophesising the imminent demise of the creature that had inspired it; the British Empire.

The death of the Crystal Palace, 1936
The death of the Crystal Palace, 1936

It is encouraging that these progressive global gatherings continue to be held in an era of international competition and tension.

However, if any of the future Expos – a term in itself far less glamorous than World Fair – intend to have a lasting legacy beyond the remit of the committed pioneers who help organise them, then a spark of originality must be reclaimed.

What we need is a defiant howl against conformity and modern stricture, against our sterilised and bookish world that will otherwise render the accomplishments of the few unattainable and unintelligible for the masses.


Tombs, R (2014), The English & Their History

Presidential Election Highlights Decline of the Duopoly: American Politics Needs a Third Way

In this day and age it is difficult for any politician to escape scandal, although even by modern standards US presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have courted it in large measure.

Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in St Louis
Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in St Louis

The various controversies surrounding the two candidates for US President have so far dominated the race to the White House and once more surfaced in the recent debate in St Louis. In a particularly hostile exchange, both Clinton and Trump had their shortcomings brutally exposed on national television.

Trump seized on Clinton’s supposedly untrustworthy nature, particularly with relation to her use of a private email server whilst Secretary of State, during and after which time she deleted thousands of potentially pertinent emails. She was further castigated for her alleged disregard of a child rape victim (the alleged attacker of which she had got acquitted during her legal days), and for intimidating the women who accused her husband Bill of sexual assault.

Clinton was fortunate to escape with a warning for her use of a private email server whilst in office
Clinton was fortunate to escape with a warning for her use of a private email server whilst in office

Trump, on the other hand, has far more openly made a rod for his own back. A 2005 video, in which he can be heard making obscene remarks about how celebrities such as himself could grope women, was unsurprisingly a hot topic. Clinton followed this by listing her opponent’s many supposed prejudices, including against Muslims, immigrants and ethnic minorities. There was also a recurring accusation that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns meant that he was basically paying none anyway.

Of course under the scrutiny of the modern media it is difficult to be a pristine politician…indeed you’d have to be pretty boring to be anything but. Consequently, such unsavoury debate is to an extent unsurprising. Yet the clouds hanging over the heads of the two candidates are of such severity that it raises questions about their suitability to be President. Might this have been the year for a serious Independent challenger? A white knight stepping out of the shadows?

The last meaningful performance by an Independent candidate for President was Ross Perot in the 1990s. In 1992, the wealthy industrialist took over 19.5 million votes from the public and yet still ended up empty-handed in the Electoral College. Running under the Reform banner in 1996 he managed 8 million votes.

Perot's economic nationalism and personal appeal garnered an upswell of support in 1992
Perot’s economic nationalism and personal appeal garnered an upswell of support in 1992

Such an effort – admittedly backed like Trump by huge personal wealth – is not to be sniffed at. The only other Independent to have gained a measure of acknowledgement was John B. Anderson who won 5.7 million votes in the 1980 election, although it should be noted that he had initially failed in a challenge for the Republican nomination.

Neither Independents nor Third Party contenders have stood a winning chance to compete for the Presidency since the pre-Civil War days, when the Democratic and Republican parties were tearing themselves apart on major issues such as slavery. The 1912 election was an exception, with four parties fighting on an almost equal platform. But again this was more to do with factional splits within the major parties than a genuine outsider straining for glory.

Woodrow Wilson comfortably won in 1912
Woodrow Wilson comfortably won in 1912

This year’s Independent hopeful is former CIA operations officer Evan McMullin, currently polling between 1 and 2%, although he is making a real push in his native Utah. From the Third Party hopefuls, the Libertarians and Greens are polling in the 5-7% region.

Such statistics are hardly a precursor to an historic anomaly and yet it could be argued that Clinton and (particularly) Trump are themselves Independents, their policy positions changing at a whim and not always reflective of large elements of their party. Trump is particularly guilty on this count, for instance dismissing the view of his own running mate on how to tackle the war in Syria.

A recent piece in Foreign Affairs suggested that the corrupt debacle that is modern Brazilian politics can partially be explained by the ease with which politicians can change parties and policy position. This has ensured that there has never been a consistent party platform for any single political grouping, hence the Brazilian electorate’s susceptibility to elect charismatic but dubious populists like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

Lula and Rousseff - now both embroiled in corruption scandals - embody the populist bent that is becoming typical of most democracies
Lula and Rousseff – now both embroiled in corruption scandals – embody the populist bent that is becoming typical of most democracies

The reality in the world’s larger and more established democracies is actually not too dissimilar. Whilst party allegiance is undoubtedly stronger and more fixed, changes on policy position and personal preference makes it difficult for the electorate to decipher many of the differences and similarities between the major parties.

In our era of intense scrutiny and keyboard warriors, it is apparently too tempting to try and please everyone. Politicians as a whole have become less principled and ideological. Policy ceases to exist in their minds or rhetoric; the vast majority cannot be told apart.

This year’s Presidential election is about as populist a showdown as could be seen. There is still very little inkling about what either of the candidates would do if they actually won power.

This is not to clamour for an Independent President, for such a political shock would surely prove disastrous, passing legislation a continual headache. What we miss, though, is a greater degree of diversity, clear policy platforms to inform an undereducated electorate, and a challenge to the Democratic-Republican duopoly. A fairer chance for the outsiders is essential for the political future of the United States.
Clinton will almost certainly win and at this stage she must be considered the lesser of two evils. Yet the American political system has been humiliated by the ease with which two huge but deeply flawed personalities have taken control of respective parties with minimal challenge, aided by a shedload of money.
Trump has never held political office and appears to lack even basic knowledge of policy and international affairs
Trump has never held political office and appears to lack even basic knowledge of policy and international affairs
Having been elevated to ascendacy by the people in the primaries they must pander to them now. It must be hoped that Trump continues to self-destruct so that Clinton does not have to allow her rhetoric and political stance to veer towards fence-sitters who might otherwise have followed ‘The Donald’s’ lead.

Confronting Colonial Legacy With Positivity: a visit to Namibia

Walking through the town centre of the west Namibian settlement of Swakopmund, it can initially be easy to forget that one is in Africa. Indeed, a tourist could almost be forgiven for thinking that they have been transplanted back to Europe.

Turn of the century German architecture in Swakopmund

Aside from the cool Atlantic breeze clipping the awnings of the prim and multi-coloured houses, the modern infrastructure and bustling convenience stores, it is the undeniable Germanness of the place that really grabs the debut visitor. Alongside the bars and restaurants (Kucki’s Pub, Swakopmund Brauhaus) stand Buchhandlungs, Bäckereien and stores selling Lederwaren, most housed within early 20th century buildings seemingly borrowed from the past. Even more telling is the constant babble of the German language (both High and Regional) emanating from curious daytrippers, excited tourists and nonplussed locals in equal measure.

This is testament to a colonial legacy which has remarkably survived for over a century, despite German South West Africa existing for less than 35 years.


German missionaries had been active in present-day Namibia from the early 19th century. In addition to proselytising, these early intruders encouraged the native people to cultivate their land, leading to the creation of small settlements amongst an otherwise scattered (sometimes nomadic) population.

The Germans were, however, late to the colonial party, Otto von Bismarck declaring ‘So long as I am Chancellor we shan’t pursue a colonial policy’. Indeed, it took the actions of an intrepid merchant to pique German interests in Africa.

In 1883, Adolf Luderitz began to purchase land along the west coast, establishing a town which now bears his name. With tempting prospects of trade and settlement, Bismarck relented and sent a gunboat to Luderitz to ward off competing British interests. The German ‘possession’ of South-West Africa was formalised at the notorious Berlin Conference in 1884.

Early German prospecting map of Namibia

With the power of numbers against them, the Germans set about solidifying their rule over their new colony by playing the various tribal groups off against one another, particularly the Nama and Herero. Along with purchasing vast tracts of land from a largely impoverished indigenous populous, this divide and rule approach soon put the Germans firmly in control.

Such a rapid incursion onto their ancestral lands understandably led to native resentment, which mutated into outright rebellion at the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1907, a Namibian ‘War of Resistance’ was fought against the German imperialists, with the Herero bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Post office at Otjiwarongo (1906) - the 'War of Rebellion' increased the German need for improved communication links
Post office at Otjiwarongo (1906) – the ‘War of Rebellion’ increased the German need for improved communication links

Only after the Germans employed heavy artillery and engaged in the sort of brutality that became characteristic of European rule in Africa did the Herero submit. Guerrilla warfare continued to be sporadically pursued by various Nama groups but to no avail. German South West Africa was here to stay.

Herero PoWs in 1904. The Germans have been accused of genocide against the Herero and Nama people during the defeat of the rebellion
Herero PoWs in 1904. The Germans have been accused of genocide against the Herero and Nama people during the defeat of the rebellion

Or so it appeared. World War One upset the balance of power on the African continent and before long a South African force had drawn a surrender from the Kaiser’s troops at Khorab in 1915. All of a sudden, German South West Africa was finished, never to rise from the ashes.

German surrender at Khorab, 1915
German surrender at Khorab, 1915

The German presence, however, did not disappear even as its former colony became a League of Nations mandate. Under the trusteeship of South Africa – not a country known for its tolerance towards its native people – the Germans flourished, collaborating with their fellow ‘Europeans’ (in this case mainly of Dutch descent) to the detriment of the diverse indigenous ethnic groups.

Several decades passed without significant change and, from a relatively small pool of original colonists, the German population (now spanning three or four generations) swelled. Even Namibia’s long overdue independence from South Africa did not change this phenomenon.

Swakopmund and Luderitz remain the clearest embodiment of Namibia’s German heritage, though they are by no means the only examples. Even travelling through the north of the country – where colonial penetration was less pronounced – there are signs in German, German missionary stations, the never-ending railways and, of course, the beer (Hansa or Windhoek; either will quench one’s thirst on a hot summer’s day).

Windhoek or Hansa?

This unbreakable permeation is testament to the Germans’ commitment to creating an African empire, however briefly such a dream existed.

Fort Sesfontein - established by the Germans in 1896 as a military base for the far northern Kaokoveld region, it is testament to their colonising zeal
Fort Sesfontein – established by the Germans in 1896 as a military base for the far northern Kaokoveld region, it is testament to their colonising zeal

As well as the physical and cultural impacts of colonisation there were also, necessarily, drastic human changes; both irrevocable and everlasting. Like other peoples exposed to European incursion, the indigenous tribes of Namibia were amalgamated into a fantasy state and confined within artificial borders to which they had never belonged. Distinct, ethnically diverse populations suddenly found themselves countrymen, neighbours regardless of whatever hostilities they bore one another.

Namibia is ethnically diverse, with many tribal groups split between neighbouring countries
Namibia is ethnically diverse, with many tribal groups split between neighbouring countries

Whilst some groups were quick to be assimilated into the ‘modern’ way of life – at least from a European viewpoint – others resisted and, as noted above, this sometimes took violent forms.

The constant battle to retain centuries-old traditions and belief systems when faced by an aggressive and all-encompassing worldview is likely to never disappear.

In Namibia, the Herero people best demonstrate the paradox between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. Herero women wear distinctive Victorian gowns and headdresses, thick 12m long garments that must prove unbearable in the ferocious African heat. Initially forced upon them by British and German missionaries in the 19th centuries, this clothing has ironically come to be seen as ‘traditional Herero’, even as some of its people continue to observe customs and religious rites that predate the Christian arrival.

Herero women in ‘traditional’ dress

Himba women, on the other hand, have long shunned European styles of clothing and persist in their semi-nakedness, be it in town or countryside. These people intermingle side-by-side, with various other ethnic groups (including whites) added to the mix. It makes for a vibrant culture in the frantic towns of the interior, whatever destructive debt to colonisation this may owe.

Himba women with their children

In spite of the rapid changes wrought by German colonisation, not to forget the subsequent South African subjugation, Namibia remains one of Africa’s most stable states.

Whilst European imperialism is often blamed for many of the continent’s ills – castigated for setting back indigenous development and creating a combustible and unsolvable demographic nightmare through forced resettlement of tribal groups – the former German South West Africa prospers.

Indeed, Namibia’s white and black population appear to co-exist in relative peace and harmony. The post-independence South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) government has avoided the temptation to seek retribution against the European population for past wrongs.

Taking note from founding father Dr Sam Nujoma’s conciliatory tone, they seem to understand that stability is essential for prosperity. They need not embrace the colonial legacy of the Germans or their South African successors, yet any attempts at ‘rectification’ can only destroy the fabric of the state. Too many African states (note South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda) have succumbed to such a delusion.

His Excellency, Dr Sam Nujoma
His Excellency, Dr Sam Nujoma

A trip to Swakopmund Museum perfectly captures the multi-ethnic equilibrium of contemporary Namibia, unafraid to confront its history with positivity and inclusivity. Exhibits of German colonial rule are displayed side-by-side with the artefacts of Namibia’s various ethnic groups, interspersed with information boards detailing the country’s geology, archaeology, flora and fauna, all to be shared by every man, woman and child.

One intriguing exhibit – encased in pristine glass – is a 15th century Portuguese sword, discovered on a Swakopmund building site in the 1950s. It is believed to have belonged to one of the soldiers of Diogo Cao, whose pioneering navigations along the west coast of Africa set the way for European conquest and colonisation of both this continent and that of Asia. Glinting menacingly from within its airtight tomb, this well-preserved monument marks the point when African civilisation as it was ceased to exist.

15th century Portuguese Sword at Swakopmund Museum

The full circle – pre-conquest, early exploration, conquest, colonisation, resistance, independence, all in one building. A story repeated across so many countries and yet embraced by so few.

Namibia’s sparse population and vast swathes of desert have probably stifled resistance and rebellion to the colonial legacy over the past century, whilst making it easier to create, shape and manage a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-tribal nation. It remains, however, a beacon of hope on a rather desolate continent, an important reminder that the worst of a nation’s past can be overcome.

Namibia has realised that it has no choice but to accept its colonial past and it has framed it an inclusive manner in which all descendants – natives and immigrants, conquered and conquerors – can live together.

After the initial mindspin, Swakopmund reveals itself for what it is; a picturesque, diverse and enthusiastic town on the formidable Atlantic coast of Africa. Once the Eurocentric lenses clear one can see the vibrant native craft stalls and the Afrikaans biltong merchants as clearly as any German pub or restaurant. People smile and greet you, cycling through languages with enviable ease.

Turn of the century German architecture in Swakopmund

As with the rest of the Namibia, there is simply no feeling of hostility. It is a relaxed, confident and tolerant atmosphere, embracing of all, damning of none.

For the casual tourist it makes for a truly wonderful visit.