Unless one is already knowledgeable about these subjects, any connection between world fairs and museums may seem forced. World fairs, after all, seem like “totally yesterday,” to borrow the recent insight of one of my first-year university students. Most people have no idea that world fairs, sometimes called expositions or international exhibitions, still exist (indeed, they are surprised to learn that a major world fair occurred in Nagoya City, Japan and that a universal-class exposition is planned in Astana, Kazakhstan this year 2017). Museums, on the other hand, while they may seem dated, have the decided advantage of being immediately recognizable as cultural institutions with histories deeply rooted in communities, regions, and nation-states. World fairs seem like ephemeral theme parks from another time; museums seem like pillars of both community and nation.

It would, in short, be unwise to presume a general understanding of the hand-in-glove relationship that existed historically between world fairs and museums. Hence, before tackling a review of the scholarly literature on international exhibitions, this chapter begins with a brief overview of the fairs themselves and then examines the career of G. Brown Goode, the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and one of the key individuals who forged the chain that linked world fairs and museums in the latter third of the nineteenth century.

World Fairs

World fairs originated with the 1851 London Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, better known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Its success launched a world fair movement that, by 1900, ringed much of the globe. Major European metropoles, including Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels hosted major fairs, as did cities on the periphery viewed by Europeans as hubs of their empires. Colonial fairs mushroomed across southern Asia, Australia, and northern Africa as exercises in European power and “uplift.” At the same time, world fairs took hold in the United States, playing a crucial role in the cultural reconstruction of the United States after the Civil War. The spectacles of “civilization” and “progress” attracted tens of millions of people to their architectural, industrial, agricultural, and anthropological exhibits. One world fair alone, the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, saw more than 50 million people pass through its portals during its six-month run. By World War I, few would have doubted the claim that world fairs had shaped both the form and substance of the modern world.

After World War I, with the rise of electronically mediated forms of entertainment, especially the movies, interest in world fairs temporarily waned. But to rebuild public faith in their own legitimacy and in the legitimacy of their colonial enterprises, the French, British, and Belgian governments jump-started the exposition medium. Then, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the bottom fell out of capitalist economies globally, the United States government, with the support of major corporations, reignited the American exposition tradition with a series of spectacular Depression-era fairs that culminated in the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair.

As many scholars have attested, these fairs were remarkably complex events that served multiple functions as architectural laboratories, anthropological field research stations, proto-theme parks, engines of consumerism, exercises in nationalism, and sites for constructing seemingly utopian and imperial dream cities of tomorrow. World fairs also drew upon and contributed to the development of museums. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as well as London’s Science Museum, Paris’s Musée National des Arts Africaines et Océaniens, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry owed their origins respectively to the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, and the 1933–4 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Countless other museums, including the Smithsonian Institution, augmented their collections with exhibit materials first organized for world fairs and later sent to museums to save shipping costs on returning objects to their home countries. It would be easy to naturalize the relationship between fairs and museums, but the connections between these institutions were hammered out in the white heat of nation-building by a handful of individuals who took to heart the importance of building the cultural infrastructure of emerging nation-states during the Victorian era. One of these individuals was G. Brown Goode.

Exhibitionary Complexes and G. Brown Goode

When he died in 1896 at the age of forty-five, tributes to G. Brown Goode poured in from around the world. So profound was their sense of loss, that his friends and colleagues organized a memorial meeting that resulted in a 515-page Festschrift. There were multiple reasons why so many people mourned Goode’s death. He was a superb naturalist who had studied under Louis Agassiz at Harvard. He had an international reputation as an ichthyologist and a growing reputation as America’s first historian of science. He had more than a passing knowledge of anthropology and was active in a variety of professional societies in Washington, DC, including the local chapter of the American Association of Architects (see Alexander 1983; Kohlstedt 1991). But the passion of Goode’s life was his devotion to what cultural sociologist Tony Bennett has aptly termed the “exhibitionary complex”, the emerging network of world fairs and museums that provided the cultural underpinnings for the development of the modern nation-state. As Bennett explains it, the essence of the exhibitionary complex, was to persuade the public:

[t]o identify with power, to see it as, if not directly theirs, then indirectly so, a force regulated and channeled by society’s ruling groups but for the good of all: this was the rhetoric of power embodied in the exhibitionary complex – a power made manifest not in its ability to inflict pain but by its ability to organize and coordinate an order of things and to produce a place for the people in relation to that order. (Bennett 1995: 67).

The implications for museums were clear. “The museum of the past must be set aside, reconstructed, transformed from a cemetery of bric-a-brac into a nursery of living thoughts” (1901a: 243). “The museums of the future in this democratic land,” he added, “should be adapted to the needs of the mechanic, the factory operator, the day laborer, the salesman, and the clerk, as much as those of the professional man and the man of leisure” (1901a: 248). The museum, in other words, should appeal to the same social classes as world fairs, but with this difference. Where fairs devoted considerable energy to attracting people of all ages, museums, Goode believed, should be vehicles for adult education, and, like libraries, become “passionless reformers” dedicated to “the continuance of modern civilization” (Goode 1901b: 239). Because it was their duty to let the masses in and remind people of the value of civilization, “[t]he people’s museum” – this was a phrase Goode borrowed from Ruskin – “should be much more than a house full of specimens in glass cases. It should be a house full of ideas, arranged with the strictest attention to system” (Goode 1901a: 249).

What exactly did Goode have in mind when he suggested that a museum for the masses should be “a house full of ideas” systematically arranged? One has only to look as far as his work at world fairs to discover an answer. As his conceptual models and display installations for every fair beginning with the Centennial made clear, Goode’s general outlook on the world rested on the assumption that a hierarchical continuum existed between something called “savagery” and something else called “civilization.” The distance between the two, he was convinced, could be measured in terms of progress and classified by science. It followed from these convictions that the museum’s highest duty was to arrange the lessons about civilization and progress so that they could be learned by the masses, rendering them good citizens of the modern nation-state. This, at least, was the upshot of his 1894 essay, “Museums and Good Citizenship.” “It will be a happy day for our country,” he wrote, “when every town and village has its public library and museum in a commodious little building which shall contain also a reading room and assembly rooms and lecture halls for the use of the local culture-clubs and societies. Could anything be more conducive to good citizenship?” (1894: 8).

Complicating the Story of Exhibitionary Complexes

G. Brown Goode believed that cultural institutions like museums and fairs could educate and mold the citizens of nation-states. But, in the course of taking in exhibitions, was the public taken in? Over the past twenty-five years, with the rediscovery of world fairs by historians and anthropologists, and the emergence of new scholarly disciplines such as museum studies and cultural studies, Goode’s assumptions – and those of historians like me who have been inclined, within a Gramscian framework, to argue that Goode and his allies succeeded in providing, with world fairs, a cultural safety net that prevented the free-fall of capitalism (a process that began in the United States in the 1870s and gained momentum through the 1930s) – have found themselves challenged by analyses that insist on more complex ways of understanding these cultural spectacles.

Showcases of Science and Technology

World fairs, of course, were showcases of scientific and technological innovation. From air conditioning through escalators to x-rays, world fairs introduced mass publics to the building blocks of modern civilization. But more than this, exposition authorities sought to use the power of display to convince the public of the necessary connection between scientific and technological innovation and national progress. Not surprisingly, given the transitory nature of expositions, not a few builders of world fairs sought to sustain the educational – and ideological – value of their work by housing world fair exhibits in museums. Goode’s work on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, as we have seen, contributed materially to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building, a building dedicated to illustrating the twin cornerstones of “civilization.” But Goode was not alone. Indeed, he drew inspiration from Henry Cole’s successful efforts to translate the success of the Crystal Palace Exhibition into a permanent museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which in turn helped inspire the creation of London’s Science Museum. No less important was Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the direct out- growth of the 1933–4 Century of Progress Exposition.

There is surprisingly little scholarship on the connections between world fairs and the creation of museums of science and industry. Eugene S. Ferguson’s older, but insightful “Technical Museums and International Exhibitions” (1965) outlines the relationships between these institutions with a view to criticizing the transfer of technological enthusiasm from fairs to museums. Likening them to “a technical Coney Island,” Ferguson concludes that these museums’ “uncritical emphasis upon the superficial and spectacular and their failure even to suggest the unsolved problems posed by the ‘progress’ to which the whole show is dedicated can only add strength to the accelerating movement toward undiscriminating mechanization of man’s environment” (Ferguson 1965: 30–46).

In retrospect, it is easy, almost too easy, to see the close connections between world fairs and museums of science and industry. But, as Mari Williams (1993) points out in “Science, Education and Museums in Britain, 1870–1914,” debates within the British government over the exact content and function of the Science Museum were protracted. This is not surprising for, as Sharon Macdonald reminds us, “[m]useums of science can be regarded as cultural technologies which define both certain kinds of ‘knowledge’ (and certain knowledges as ‘Knowledge’ or ‘science’) and certain kinds of publics” (Macdonald 1998: 5). Just as G. Brown Goode struggled with classifying and displaying knowledge about the known world at the 1893 fair, so museum and state authorities sought to arrange knowledge systems that would build public confidence in equating scientific knowledge and industrial growth with the meaning of progress.


“A Companion to Museum Studies”

© 2006 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Edited by Sharon Macdonald