Case Studies in World Fair Spatial Configurations

An examination of world fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries through a spatial historical lens provides a nuanced perspective on the overlapping cultural and international relations amongst nations at these exhibitions. This blog post will understand these fairs as “networks of exchange” rather than considering each exhibition in isolation.[1] Debra Hanson argues that the fairs, such as the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, initiated a new awareness within the “Western worldview” of the “transnational connections” amongst peoples, cultures, and nations.[2] I argue that this can be further understood through examining the spatial relations between different displays at these events, and in recognising how these relate to the global/local discourse.

David Raizman and Ethan Robey contend that the ‘language’ of material items holds political meaning. Material objects were judged by visitors in comparative terms between different nations and cultures, and politics and nationalistic rhetoric were intertwined with material objects in these fairs. Behind the unified image of peaceful competition presented at these world fairs, Raizman and Robey identify tensions and struggles between different participants, often due to their colonial status. A sort of contradiction can be identified here between image presented and reality:

“…economic competition among participant nations extended outward to supplies of raw materials and workers, and inexorably to colonialism, underpinned by the same military hardware so admired in the exhibition halls.”[3]

Raizman and Robey identify that often national histories were presented through specific narratives in the displays to help define and construct national pride.[4] We can thus identify an irony between many of the displays at these fairs. Whilst the displays of Western nations would present their colonial military ‘might’ in line with developments in technological modernity in the 19th century, the displays of Eastern or Southern (read: colonised) nations would be contrasted to these as a consumable commodity.[5] Nationalisms were communicated through the material objects on display and moulded and shaped in line with these narratives. The spatial relations amongst and between the displays played a part in this, as well as the guidebooks provided to supplement the displays and ensure the visitor followed the set path as they navigated the fair.[6] This defined the exhibitor’s position in relation to the host nation, as well as the observer’s position in relation to the displays and their original imagined locations.

A key example of how the spatial relations of the fairs constructed national narratives is in the 1893 Chicago Exposition. Structured as a classical White City, the buildings of the exposition were arranged in a centre and a periphery, with the Midway Plaisance leading away from the principal buildings. Hanson describes this lay out as a form of “spatial segregation,” as the further away one ventured from the central area the less ‘civilised’ the nations of display were presented to be.[9] Thus, the exhibition constructed a sliding scale of civilisational progress as physically represented by the Midway Plaisance, creating in line with this for the visitors a clear sense of the cultural global centre and periphery in actuality.

A further example of how the narratives of the displays were moulded by colonial influences can be seen in the Tunisian display at the Paris Exposition in 1867. Designed by French architect Alfred Chapon, the ‘Bardo of the Bey’ structure aimed to imitate Ahmed Bey’s summer palace:


The building adopted past styles and adapted them to contemporary (European) tastes, engaging with the present but preserving practices of the past. The interpretative narrative around the ‘Bardo of the Bey’ is divided. Hanson argues that the structure demonstrates Western management of the East, but for other scholars, it represents cultural negotiation and a physical symbol of hybridity.[8] However, colonial influences were intrinsically bound up in the structure’s creation. The “networks of exchange” occurring at these world fairs thus reflect the orientalist attitudes apparent in their spatial configurations.

Participation in the fairs often led to a construction of a careful, nuanced national past, in order to preserve national unity and political stability. Susan R. Fernsebner explores how a specific national image of “China” was presented by Chinese “expositional managers” (made up of Chinese elites) at various international expositions between 1904-1915.[10] How these elites presented ‘China’ tells us about their own ideas about Chinese nationalism at the time, and highlights the changes to the domestic Chinese political structure in the period. Fernsebner argues that the Nanyang Exposition of 1910 was used to mobilize people in the name of economic nationalism:

“In staging this exposition, Managing Director Chen Qi and his fellow organizers sought to stage a new kind of event for a mass audience in China, one that would help to shape a disciplined population to serve its nation… Organizers framed the ex-position as a studied inventory of the nation’s goods, both for domestic consumption amid foreign competition and export promotion, while placing a growing emphasis on science and industrial production.”[11]

Thus, the exhibitions at Nanyang served a dual purpose: the experience of visiting was painted as a national event to promote economic development, through and in combination with the social indoctrination of Chinese people viewing the displays.[12] Although less to do with the spatial configurations of the displays themselves, this example demonstrates how narrative of nationalism and modernity can be represented physically through material items (such as Raizman and Robey contested earlier on in this post), and how navigation of the physical exposition space affected the visitor phenomenologically.


[1] Raizman, David & Robey, Ethan (2017) ‘Introduction’ in Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915. Routledge, p. 7

[2] Hanson, Debra (2017) ‘East meets West: Re-presenting the Arab-Islamic world at the nineteenth-century world’s fairs,’ in Raizman, David & Robey, Ethan (eds.), Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915. Routledge, p. 15

[3] Raizman & Robey (2017) pp. 5-6

[4] Ibid, p. 11

[5] Hanson (2017) p. 15

[6] Ibid, p. 16

[7] Chapon, Alfred (1867) ‘Bardo,’ Pavilion of the Bey of Tunis, Exposition Universelle, Paris, sectional print. Reproduced from Revue generale de l’architecture et des travaux publics, vol. 27 (Paris: Paris Ducher 1869), pp. 35-36

[8] Hanson (2017) p. 27

[9] Ibid, p. 28

[10] Fernsebner, Susan R. (2017) ‘When the local is global: Case studies in early twentieth-century Chinese exposition projects,’ in Raizman, David & Robey, Ethan (eds.), Expanding Nationalisms at World’s Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange, 1851-1915. Routledge, p. 173

[11] Ibid, p. 178

[12] Ibid, p. 179