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.

Source

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

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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