Ron Nurwisah on World’s Fairs

Started in the late 19th century as a way to show off industrial might, scientific progress and all that colonial loot, world’s fairs are quickly becoming an anachronism. They still happen–one took place in Shanghai earlier this year–but it’s easy to argue that their main objectives of exposing the public to exotic cultures and the latest technology are just as easily accomplished by mass media and personal travel. Nonetheless, the dozens of world’s fairs that have taken place since Queen Victoria held the Great Exhibition in 1851 are interesting for their landmarks, physical (the Eiffel Tower, the first Ferris Wheel, Vancouver’s SkyTrain Line, Montreal’s Habitat) and cultural (the first TVs, electricity).

Ron Nurwisah is a web editor at the National Post and a contributor to Spacing. He’s never actually been to a World’s Fair but has lived in Yaletown, the neighbourhood created after Expo 86. Follow him on Twitter @boyreporter

1. The Great Exhibition

Trust the British, the greatest colonial power of the 19th century, to flaunt its global reach. The fair’s full name was Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations but of course at its heart was the might of Great Britain. These watercolours from the fair give an indication of its size and the breadth of items shown, many of which, like exhibits from the courts of India, would’ve been startling to ordinary Victorians.

2. Sufjan Stevens’ Come On! Feel the Illinoise!

The 1893 Columbian Expo in Chicago was the first held in the U.S., and it left the mid-Western city to contend with Paris’s much-lauded 1889 fair. (They’d unveiled the Eiffel Tower.) Chicago built the world’s first Ferris Wheel and a temporary site dubbed the White City. The fair reshaped the city and the entire U.S.A. Sufjan Stevens celebrates it in this song from his album Illinoise.

3. The original Futurama

For the 1939 New York City World’s Fair, GM built a miniature model city and ride called the Futurama. During the year it was open, it took riders on a tour of the futuristic world of 1960, spellbinding Great Depression-hardened Americans with dreams of personal car ownership, highways and homes outside of dirty, crowded cities.

4. Expo 86 and the Vancouver model

False Creek, a former industrial site and the location of Vancouver’s 1986 Expo would remain unused for more than a decade. When it was finally redeveloped it became home to dozens of condos, parks and other buildings. Some critics would argue that development has caused massive gentrification, but as this article puts forth, it’s tough to argue against a vibrant neighbourhood springing up where industrial lands once stood.

5. North Korea’s pavilion at the Shanghai Expo

Nowadays, national pavilions at Expos are more like living, breathing tourist brochures. So what kind of image does a country as closed as North Korea project? From the looks of these photos, taken by bloggers from Shanghaiist, it’s equal parts nationalistic propaganda, cult of personality and fake rock.