World’s fair (EXPO)

A world’s fair (EXPO) is a large international exhibition designed to showcase achievements of nations. These exhibitions vary in character and are held in different parts of the world at a specific site for a period of time, ranging usually from three to six months.

In 1791 Prague organized the first World’s Fair, Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), it was on the occasion of the coronation of Leopold II as a king of Bohemia, which took place in Clementinum.

The French tradition of national exhibitions, a tradition that culminated with the French Industrial Exposition of 1844 held in Paris. This fair was followed by other national exhibitions in Europe. In 1851, under the title “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”, the World Expo was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, the United Kingdom. The Great Exhibition, as it is often called, was an idea of Prince AlbertQueen Victoria‘s husband, and is usually considered to be the first international exhibition of manufactured products. It influenced the development of several aspects of society, including art-and-design education, international trade and relations, and tourism. This expo was the precedent for the many international exhibitions, later called World Expos, that have continued to be held to the present time.

The character of world fairs, or expositions, has evolved since the first one in 1851. Three eras can be distinguished: the era of industrialization, the era of cultural exchange, and the era of nation branding.

Industrialization (1851–1938)

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The Yerkes Great refractor mounted at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago

The first era, the era of “industrialization”, roughly covered the years from 1800 to 1938. In these days, world expositions were largely focused on trade and displayed technological advances and inventions. World expositions were platforms for state-of-the-art science and technology from around the world. The world expositions of 1851 London1853 New York1862 London1876 PhiladelphiaParis 18781888 Barcelona1889 Paris1891 Prague1893 Chicago1897 Brussels1900 Paris1904 St. Louis1915 San Francisco, and 1933–34 Chicago were notable in this respect. Inventions such as the telephone were first presented during this era. This era set the basic character of the world fair.

Cultural exchange (1939–1987)

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Ice Follies at the Seattle 1962 World’s Fair

Further information: Technological utopianism

The 1939–40 New York World’s Fair, and those that followed, took a different approach, one less focused on technology and aimed more at cultural themes and social progress. For instance, the theme of the 1939 fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow”; at the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, it was “Peace Through Understanding”; at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, it was “Man and His World”. These fairs encouraged effective intercultural communication along with sharing of technological innovation.

The 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal was promoted under the name Expo 67. Event organizers retired the term world’s fair in favor of Expo (the Montreal Expos, a former Major League Baseball team, was named for the 1967 fair).

Nation branding (1988–present)

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1992 Expo in Seville, Spain

From World Expo 88 in Brisbane onwards, countries started to use expositions as a platform to improve their national image through their pavilions. Finland, Japan, Canada, France, and Spain are cases in point. A major study by Tjaco Walvis called “Expo 2000 Hanover in Numbers” showed that improving national image was the main goal for 73% of the countries participating in Expo 2000. Pavilions became a kind of advertising campaign, and the Expo served as a vehicle for “nation branding”. According to branding expert Wally Olins, Spain used Expo ’92 and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona in the same year to underscore its new position as a modern and democratic country and to show itself as a prominent member of the European Union and the global community.

At Expo 2000 Hanover, countries created their own architectural pavilions, investing, on average, €12 million each. Given these costs, governments are sometimes hesitant to participate, because the benefits may not justify the costs. However, while the effects are difficult to measure, an independent study for the Dutch pavilion at Expo 2000 estimated that the pavilion (which cost around €35 million) generated around €350 million of potential revenues for the Dutch economy. It also identified several key success factors for world-exposition pavilions in general.