Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs

Introduction / editorial statement

Since the inaugural 1851 London exhibition, world's fairs have been major historical benchmarks as well as key agents of modernization. These spectacular events stimulated contemporary exchange of ideas in the fields of urbanism, fine arts, decorative arts, merchandizing, and architecture. They were a platform for personal discovery among designers and critics who attended international meetings on their occasion.

The Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs grew out of an Honors seminar, "World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History" that I teach every other spring, beginning in 2001. The seminar pays special attention to the evolving political, economic and cultural agenda (avowed or hidden) of world's fairs, as they relate to complementary or conflicting issues of national pride and colonial expansion; race and gender; technological and artistic supremacy; social welfare and conspicuous consumption; popular education; and popular entertainment. Master plans for major fairs are reviewed using the comparative method, focusing on their legacy of permanent civic improvements and structures. Design is critically studied using examples of a variety of pavilion types, including national, regional, foreign, thematic, and commercial. An additional important focus is on the symbolic and physical impact of the 1889, 1900 and 1925 Paris fairs, as well as of Chicago's 1893 Colombian Exposition on the urbanism and architecture of Washington, D.C. and other American cities.

The majority of entries in the Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs reflect the specific research interest of participants in the seminar. The material for entries is drawn from the rich and varied World's Fair Collection in Special Collections, Hornbake Library, University of Maryland Libraries (UMD), and as such provides a good sampling of the wealth of world's fairs art and artifacts. In addition, participants in the seminar study a wide array of primary and interpretive sources.