Whatever Happened to the World’s Fair?

Photo: Flickr/ PLCjr

The World’s Fair. A huge, international showcase of the science, technology, art, and culture of hundreds of world nations. You’ve probably seen it in movies, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Iron Man 2 (rebranded as the “Stark Expo”).

Photo: Twitter/ @NYPAenergy

But when was the last time you paid any attention to the real thing? When did this centuries-long tradition become lost for the U.S.?

We lost interest in the ’80s and ’90s. By the year 2000, the United States no longer participated in the World’s Fair. What happened?

A Little Background

The concept of a “World’s Fair” or “International Expo” goes back to the middle of the 19th century, when a large number of countries would come together and present competitive art shows, industrial innovation, and new national products.

Since the early beginnings in the 1850s, the World’s Fair has been a celebration of free trade and a chance for each nation to display their new technology, new agricultural products or the best of their art and culture to the world (with the hope of increasing trade and tourism).

Photo: Picryl

The first World’s Fair, called the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry in All Nations,” was held in Britain in 1851. Since that time, more than 40 nations have hosted the fair, including Australia, Guatemala, Vietnam, France and the United States. In each case, citizens traveled from afar to see the progress and wonders on display from around the world.

The U.S. hosted its first World’s Fair in 1853 in Bryant Park, New York City.  The occasion of the fair called for the construction of a “Crystal Palace” in the park. The enormous iron and glass structure received nine million visitors before eventually burning down.

The World’s Fair in the Twentieth Century

The golden age of the fair happened in the early twentieth century with spectacular exhibitions in Paris, St. Louis and San Francisco.  After this time, attendance and interest began to decline. Both the first and second world wars took a toll on countries’ ability to host or participate in the events.

The biggest exhibition of the latter half of the twentieth century was the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65, some structures of which (including the unisphere) are still standing today.

Photo: Twitter/ @The WendyWright

Fairs since 1970 have tended to be themed, celebrating a particular idea: nature, international energy, environmental concerns, leisure, and sustainable development. The 1992 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain commemorated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas.

Decline of the Movement…in the U.S.

In the later years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, World’s Fairs have become less frequent. The cost of staging the massive event keeps going up, and the original intent of information on trade or shared concerns have become less necessary.

The advent of the internet and the globalization of communication have reduced the necessity of showing new ideas and new technology in person. In 2000, President Bill Clinton announced that the U.S. would not officially attend or participate in the 2000 World Expo in Hannover, Germany.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This did not mean (and still does not mean), however, that the World’s Fair movement has gone away. The Hannover, Germany event showcased 187 nations from around the world.  The concept also remains particularly popular in Asian nations. Expo Shanghai in 2010 pulled in 73 million visitors, and expos in South Korea (2012), Milan (2015) and Kazakhstan (2017) have all been successes.

Where Does the Fair Go from Here?

There are those who criticize the extravagance (and perceived irrelevance) of a World’s Fair or World Expo in a time when so much information is available globally through the internet.

Proponents of the concept, however, say that the tradition of the world coming together to present and discuss innovations is a valuable one that is worth maintaining.

If, many say, fairs can focus on social and environmental issues such as urbanization, global climate change, food, and resource consumption and more, then they have the chance to provide a valuable place for international dialog. There is value for many in face-to-face communication.

This is the foundation of what is known as the “Hannover Principles,” which came from the Hannover Expo in 2000. These principles hold that World’s Fair Expositions should focus on the realistic presentation of contemporary social and environmental problems and their solutions.

When fairs focus on working together to find solutions to global problems, supporters say, then they have a valuable role to fill in international dialog. Those who have attended one of these events know their power to create optimism and imagination in all.

Photo: Wikipedia

This is perhaps why the U.S. is coming back around to the idea. President Barack Obama directed the U.S to participate in the 2015 fair, and groups in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Houston are bidding to host fairs in 2023 or 2025.