Ephemeral vistas

The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851–1939

Paul Greenhalgh
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The international exhibitions held around the world between 1851 and 1939 were spectacular gestures, which briefly held the attention of the world before disappearing into an abrupt oblivion, of the victims of their planned temporality. Known in Britain as Great Exhibitions, in France as Expositions Universelles and in America as World's Fairs, the genre became a self-perpetuating phenomenon, the extraordinary cultural spawn of industry and empire. Thoroughly in the spirit of the first industrial age, the exhibitions illustrated the relation between money and power, and revelled in the belief that the uncontrolled expression of that power was the quintessence of freedom. Philanthropy found its place on exhibition sites functioning as a conscience to the age although even here morality was inextricably linked to economic efficiency and expansion. Imperial achievement was celebrated to the full at international exhibitions. Nevertheless, most World's Fairs maintained an imperial element and out of this blossomed a vibrant racism. Between 1889 and 1914, the exhibitions became a human showcase, when people from all over the world were brought to sites in order to be seen by others for their gratification and education. In essence, the English national profile fabricated in the closing decades of the nineteenth century was derived from the pre-industrial world. The Fine Arts were an important ingredient in any international exhibition of calibre. This book incorporates comparative work on European and American empire-building, with the chronological focus primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when these cultural exchanges were most powerfully at work.

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