MoOC - Sharing Europe through European Heritage

4/ Universal exhibitions and the cultural heritage of European capitalism

Universal Exhibitions have emerged in Europe in the mid-19th century and have closely accompanied the development of industrial capitalism and modern mass societies. This chapter will retrace the European genealogy of universal exhibitions and will briefly present how they have produced a cultural heritage for this specific era of European history. It will present a few examples of the built heritage of 19th century world expos, and the cultural heritage of an emergent consumer society at the end of the century.


Van Tran Troi
Van Troi Tran is a Research Assistant in Ethnology at the Université Laval in Quebec City. He is the author of Manger et boire aux expositions universelles: Paris, 1889 et 1900 (2012). He has also served as president of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada.

An unprecedented photograph taken by Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty, from the central entrance to the huge Palais de l'Industrie, built in 1854 between the Place de la Concorde and the roundabout of the Champs-Élysées for the Universal Exposition of 1855. At the top, an allegorical group France distributing wreaths to Trade and Industry, work of the sculptor Elias Robert @Robert Belot/musée Bartholdi de Colmar


Capitalism, heritage and universal exhibitions

Capitalism and cultural heritage, as one can easily imagine, have had a complex and ambiguous relationship. On the one hand, advocates for the conservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage may invoke a process of relentless creative destruction brought upon the world by global capitalism and neoliberal policies, in order to highlight a sense of urgency for the safeguarding of endangered practices or cultural assets, especially those of questionable modern usefulness or uncertain economic value. But on the other hand, critics of the current politics of cultural heritage often contend that the cultural conceptions advocated by the UNESCO might in fact participate in this very movement towards a reification and commoditization of culture, as the inscription of cultural assets turns them "into a composite, alienable good and a tool of late capitalist development" (Collins 2011: 124). Taking cues from his fieldwork experiences in Greece, Italy and Thailand, Michael Herzfeld also asserts that the politics of cultural heritage often come at the expense of the communities inhabiting spaces who become gentrified and sanitized for the international gaze of tourists (Herzfeld 2010). In their recent book Enrichissement, the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre (2017) theorize how the past has become a resource of economic value in late capitalism, as discourses on the preservation of heritage are now used in French regions as tools for territorial planning and local development.

But capitalism is rarely thought of as an object of heritage in itself, especially as since in critical scholarly literature, it is most often associated with standardization, the hegemony of quantitative clock time as opposed to qualitative tasks (Thompson), creative destruction (Schumpeter), time-space compression (Harvey), or simulacra (Baudrillard). In this chapter, I would thus like to tackle the problem the other way around by addressing the cultural heritage of capitalism, more specifically 19th century European industrial capitalism. It will draw from the example of what was perhaps the most glaring cultural self-representations of modernity and technological progress of the second half of the 19th century, the great universal exhibitions. As a historical phenomenon that fully came into bloom in the last half of the 19th century, industrial capitalism rearranged the urban landscapes of European cities and became embodied in a variety of artifacts, traces, practices and cultural forms, from commodities to visual advertisements and urban infrastructures. The 19th century universal exhibitions played a central role in this process, and could thus be qualified as instrumental in the construction of a European identity in this age of invention of traditions.

From 1851 to 1900, in what is generally tagged the golden age of universal exhibitions, ten expos took place in Europe, mainly in the two economic centers of Paris and London* The complete list of 19th century universal exhibitions recognized as such by the Bureau International des Expositions is: London 1851, Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873, Philadelphia 1876, Paris 1878, Melbourne 1880, Barcelona 1888, Paris 1889, Chicago 1893, Brussels 1897, Paris 1900. . These events all drew millions of international visitors and presented to the public on one specific site: national pavilions, new inventions, industrial wares, works of art, monuments, folkloric artifacts, ethnographic and archeological exhibits, music and dance spectacles, and many more things. As a by-product of the Enlightenment ideals and inspired by the philosophies of utilitarianism in England, and positivism and saint-simonism in France. They were tridimensional encyclopedias, exhibiting and classifying the whole world for both the education and the wonder of a massive public. As has often been demonstrated in cultural histories of the emergence of a commodity culture in the 19th century European cities (Richards 1990, Schwartz 1999), these first universal exhibitions also participated in the public representation of cultural productions associated with a market economy, such as the industrial technologies of mass production showcased in the London Crystal Palace or the Galerie des Machines in Paris, they celebrated wealth and technical progress (Hobsbawm 1995: 47) as well as "the unification of the world through monetization and commodity exchange" (Harvey 2003: 114).

This chapter will be divided into three parts. The first part will present a portray of both the mythical and actual origins of universal exhibitions, in order to show how they have been embedded in narratives on the construction of Europe and the development of a market economy on the scale of the continent. The second part with examine the built heritage of the 19th century universal exhibitions. The third part explore the artifacts left by the commodity culture of universal exhibitions. The material presented here will certainly be partial and cursory. These ten events are of course only but a part of a wider international exhibition network that existed and grew at the same period, and lead to organization of a great number of less known industrial exhibitions of smaller magnitude also took place in other parts of Europe and around the world at the same period (see for example Filipova 2015, Della Coletta 2006).

1/ Universal exhibitions: a European invention

According to the Bureau international des Expositions (BIE), the intergovernmental organization based in Paris that is in charge of overseeing and regulating international exhibitions, an Expo is a "global event that aims at educating the public, sharing innovation, promoting progress and fostering cooperation. It is organized by a host country that invites other countries, companies, international organizations, the private sector, the civil society and the general public to participate.*" The Article 1 of the convention further specifies that "An exhibition is a display which, whatever its title, has as its principal purpose the education of the public: it may exhibit the means at man’s disposal for meeting the needs of civilization, or demonstrate the progress achieved in one or more branches of human endeavor, or show prospects for the future.*" According to the 1988 Amendment of the Convention on International Exhibitions, the BIE nowadays makes a distinction between World Expos (such as Shanghai 2010, Milan 2015 and Dubai 2020) that are "global gathering of nations dedicated to finding solutions to pressing challenges of our time by offering a journey inside a universal theme through engaging and immersive activities*" and Specialized Expos (like Yeosu 2012, Astana 2017, or Buenos Aires 2023) that are defined as "global events designed to respond to a precise challenge facing humanity*".

There is no question that in current World Expos, the relationship between capitalism and universal exhibitions is still very present, with the massive participation of private investors in both national and corporate pavilions, and the scale of sponsorships from multinational companies, such as Pepsi, Accenture and MasterCard for the 2020 Dubai Expo. However, the narratives that underlie the official objectives of today’s expos are markedly less industrial in focus and economistic in orientation, that their nineteenth century counterparts, now that imagining the future implies reflections on effective solutions to tackle the ever-looming environmental crisis and its effects on our ways of life (see Goodman 2008). This ecological turn in our visions of the future, and by extension of world expos, certainly entail an erosion of the eurocentrist perspectives that transpired in the early universal exhibitions. Now, just as the geographic poles of attraction for hosting cities of mega-events in general seem to gravitate towards the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, the environmentally-inclined expo themes may imply an abandon of former versions of progress and modernity associated with the industrial age.

But despite this decentering of World Expos outside of Europe, which has really started in the Cold War period with the organization of two of the most important World Expos in history that took place in extra-European soil in Montreal (1967) and Osaka (1970), the European heritage in still very present in the concept itself of the world expo and the visions of globality, global culture or global citizenship that they still advocate (see Roche 2000). The 2005 Aichi world expo that advocated "alternative" non-modern and non-Western versions of the universal was nevertheless inspired in part by contemporary European thinkers such as Bruno Latour or Philippe Descola (Houdart 2013). This first section of the chapter will thus present the European roots of the invention of universal exhibitions.

There is a not uncommon narrative that traces the origins of World Expos to the early modern period. Adolphe Demy, who wrote a massive study on universal exhibitions at the turn of the 20th century, identifies a number of historical forerunners of universal exhibitions like the Hanseatic trade fairs of the Middle Ages that took place in different cities throughout Europe in the Rhine valley, Flanders and England, or the 1699 exhibition at the Louvre that showcased side by side pieces sent by the Académie de peinture et de sculpture and inventions sent by the Académie des sciences (Demy 1907: 11). This exercise in historical genealogy does highlight the continued existence across Europe of periodic events of commercial nature that participated from the Middle Ages in both the construction of Europe and the development of a market economy at the scale of the continent. Demy’s narrative, however, despite emphasizing the European origins of different cultural manifestations that could be compared in one manner or another to the nineteenth century universal exhibitions, tends to obliterate the specific historical conditions that allowed for the invention of world expos in 1851: the Industrial Revolution, the ideological legacy of European Enlightenment, the geographic expansion of European empires, the emergence of official national cultures and identities (Anderson 1991), and the rise of liberal democracies which entailed that European governments needed to be legitimized by popular consent.

Universal exhibitions were thus much more than a large international market and several observers have noted it throughout the century. Back in a 1902 a doctoral thesis, the lawyer Georges Gérault, reminds us that whereas traditional fairs are limited to exposing consumer goods, while the universal exhibitions also showcased machines, tools, devices, and the means of production used for their making. Unlike fairs, the primary goal of world fairs is not strictly commercial, but also informative - a trend that became even more pronounced at the end of the 19th century (Gérault 1902: 22-23). In other words, the history of universal exhibitions is deeply tied to the Europeanization of the world in the nineteenth century, and the project, still present in current world expos, of organizing a large-scale event for a massive public that would summarize and classify human productions of the whole world in a single place, is a direct legacy of the encyclopedic ideals of the Enlightenment.

The actual precursor of the Universal exhibitions can rather be located in France in the aftermath of the Revolution. In 1797, the year V of the Republic, the Marquis d’Avèze, an aristocrat who survived the Terror and controlled at the time the three inational factories of Sèvres (ceramic), Les Gobelins (tapestries) and Les Savonneries (carpets), decided to organize a public exhibition of their goods in the forecourt of the Louvre with the collaboration of the François de Neufchâteau, the Minister of the Interior for the French Republic. The aim of this exhibition was to stimulate the industry that was still struggling in the years following 1789 (Greenhalgh 1988: 3). In the following decades, these national exhibitions continued to take place, and the tradition was maintained despite the numerous regime changes in France in the first half of the 19th century. Three expositions were organized during the Napoleonic era (1801, 1802, 1806), three under the Bourbon restoration (1819, 1823, 1827), three under the July Monarchy (1834, 1839, 1844), and one under the Second Republic (1849). Unlike modern universal exhibitions, these national expositions only lasted a few days or weeks. But they prefigured universal exhibitions by bringing together exhibitors from different branches of industry (agriculture, textiles, steam engines, jewelery, ceramics , furniture, etc.) in order to produce of panorama of the national production, to encourage the exchange of ideas, to facilitate the comparison between different products and incite their public adoption, and to stimulate industrial production with contests and the attribution of medals by a jury.

The 1851 Great Exhibition in London could then be interpreted as a response to the success of the French national expositions, with the significant difference that it would be open to all countries. But as recent historical research on lesser known expositions has shown, the prehistory of universal exhibitions was not only French but already European. Before 1851, In England, the curator and art educator George Wallis participated in the organization of industrial exhibitions in Wolverhampton in 1839 and 1840, and Manchester in 1845 (Filipova 2015: 2). Turin hosted no less than 5 Esposizione d'Industria et di Belle Arti, Brussels had an Exposition des produits de l'industrie nationale in 1841, and in Germany, an All-German exhibition in 1844 had a significant influence on the 1851 London event, to the extent that the Secretary of the Great Exhibition John Scott Russell undertook a trip to Germany on the instruction of Prince Albert to learn more on the logistics of expositions (Davis 2015).

The movement that started with the 1851 Great Exhibition became global by the beginning of the 20th Century, as it reached, besides Paris, other European metropoles, like Vienna (1873) and Brussels (1897), as well as American cities in 1876 (Philadelphia), 1893 (Chicago) and 1904 (St. Louis). In his unfinished Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin cursorily proposed a connection between the birth of universal exhibitions in London in 1851 and the idea of international free trade, and more specifically exemplified by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1849 (Benjamin 1999: 83). A few decades earlier, linking the new international circulation of information across countries with the emergence of Universal exhibitions, the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, writing in his Psychologie économique remarked that, the increasing impossibility of protecting the secrets of national manufacture for a long time made futile the efforts against the disclosure of inventions, and the nations were from now on eager to publicize themselves their discoveries and share them with their rivals (Tarde 1902). This link between should of course be nuanced to a certain extent. International trade did not progress smoothly throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, across the conflicts, economic crises and rising nationalisms. Predictably, the host country celebrating its achievements, industrial, political or otherwise, to the international public, and national participants more often than not representing the majority of exhibition delegates, and every exhibition had, despite their claims to universality, a distinctly national flavor.

But the actual genealogy of World Expos shows that a transnational circulation of ideas, people and logistics was already present in the expositions that took place before 1851. In the last half of the nineteenth century however, universal exhibitions both crystallized and triggered more explicitly the cultural transformations introduced to the world by industrial capitalism, by representing new technologies and practices for the production, distribution and consumption of commodities. By the last decades of the 19th century, Leo Moonen observed in a 1883 book: "The utility of exhibitions has been so universally recognised that they have become an institution in every country that pretends to a fair share of civilisation’" (quoted in Geppert 2010: 2).

2/ Universal exhibitions and the built heritage of industrial capitalism

Universal exhibitions have always been indeed "fleeting cities" or "ephemeral vistas" to borrow the titles of two scholarly books on the subject (Greenhalgh 1988, Geppert 2010), who apparently take their cues from Baudelaire’s famous definition of modernity: "the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent." But they also fulfilled a monumental function that celebrated this era of industrial progress and left unique landmarks on the landscape of host cities, and came to become major attractions for the international tourist industry, thus solidifying their place in the circulation of capital and the visual economy of an emerging consumer society. It is the case for the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais in Paris, which are all evoked on the description sheet justifying the inclusion of the Banks of the Seine on the UNESCO World Heritage List*, it is also the case, to a lesser extent for the Ciutadella Park in Barcelona, and it most certainly was the case for massive structures that have been destroyed but still left their mark in the history of nineteenth century architecture, like the Crystal Palace on Hyde Park, the Prater Rotunda in Vienna, or the Galerie des Machines in Paris.

Many of these landmark buildings left by universal exhibitions celebrated industrialization by showcasing how architectural potentials were opened with the factory production of iron and glass. These architectural accomplishments displayed at universal exhibitions, thus paved the way for innovations, especially in the design of places central in the development of industrial capitalism, such as train stations, warehouses, market canopies and department stores. Answering to critics decrying the uselessness of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the editor of the journal La Nature Gaston Tissandier replied that the engineering feat accomplished by Eiffel was in itself a rich legacy: "La Tour Eiffel constitue en quelque sorte une pile de pont gigantesque qui permettra d’entreprendre dans un avenir prochain des travaux d’utilités publique qui auraient paru naguère des oeuvres absolument chimériques" (Tissandier 1889: 72). Tissandier, in his argumentation for the utility of the Eiffel Tower did not foresee its potential at a major attraction for international visitors and a world heritage site* In his book, he evokes strategic, communication, meteorological and astronomical uses (Tissandier 1889)., but he confirmed that the building had nonetheless been conceived at the time as a monument glorifying the age of iron construction and a potential source of inspiration for future projects.

The importance of buildings such as the Eiffel Tower might however obliterate the more inconspicuous built heritage of lesser known buildings that are testimonies in a different way of the development of exchanges across Europe at the end of the 19th century. If some of the most important material traces of ancient and recent world expos have now become urban landmarks and tourist attractions in different European cities, other architectural remains have disappeared from the public eye, and have thus not gone through a mainstream process of heritagization. In 2006, a French photograph interested in the history of Paris Universal Expositions, Sylvain Ageorges, published a book that traced the material remains of the Paris Expositions in order to rehabilitate them. It features one of the very remains of the 1855 Exposition, a Neo-antique scultpture titled La France couronnant d’or l’Art et l’Industrie, originally placed at the top of the entrance of the Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs-Élysées, that has now been moved to the Parc de Saint-Cloud (Ageorges 2006: 23). Other small European pavilions from the Paris universal exhibitions have also been disseminated throughout Paris region, such as the Russian Isba from 1867 which was moved to the 16th arrondissement, the English pavilions of 1878 that was moved to Maisons-Laffitte, or the Sweden and Norway pavilions of 1878 that were rebuilt in the Parc Bécon in the commune of Courbevoie in the outskirts of Paris.

But more importantly, universal exhibitions have also transformed the cityscape of European cities with the construction of urban infrastructures for the circulation of tourists and the carriage of goods, the development of consumption spaces, and transportation within and between European cities and countries. In this regard, universal exhibitions participated directly in the construction of a European territory for commercial exchange by encouraging the development of an international network of infrastructures for the carriage of people and goods. Or as Walter Benjamin says is his chapter on iron construction in the Arcades Project: "The first structures made of iron served transitory purposes: covered markets railroad stations, exhibitions. Iron is thus immediately allied with functional moments in the life of economy" (Benjamin 1999: 154). In London, it was in part the problems caused by the traffic generated by the 1862 exhibition that justified the construction of the new St. Pancras railway station that incidentally now connects London to the continent since the opening of Channel Tunnel Rail Linkfor the Eurostar in 2007. In Vienna, the Nordwestbahnhof, built at the time of the 1873 Exhibition had the effect of connecting the Austrian capital to the German cities of Dresden, Leipzig, Breslau, Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen for the event. By 1900, the European railroad network was already for visitors throughout the continent to be able to access the event in Paris. The first pages of a guide published by Hachette for the Paris Exposition featured a map of Europe, with the distances, duration of trip and ticket costs for Paris, from basically every important European city all the way to St. Petersburg, Kazan and Astrakhan.

For the transportation of visitors within the host city, a famous legacy of universal expositions is the bateaux-mouches, that became in the second half of the 20th century a cultural symbol of waterway tourism in Paris. While they were invented in Lyon by Michel Félizat, they were introduced in the French capital at the occasion of the 1867 universal exhibition, and when Jean Bruel founded the Compagnie des Bateaux Mouches in 1950 in order to offer a transit service on the Seine, he bought the last remaining boat from the 1900 Universal exhibition. Also, with the dissemination of exhibition sites in 1900 and the Olympics that held simultaneously in Vincennes, the public transport system of the city was vastly modernized and the construction of the Metro was accelerated, with a first line connecting the Porte Maillot with the Porte de Vincennes which was inaugurated on 19 July 1900 at the Exposition. The first metro entrances in cast iron and glass designed by Hector Guimard in the Art Nouveau style helped popularized the style, they make heavy reference to the symbolism of plants and are now considered classic examples of French art nouveau architecture. 141 entrances were built between 1900 and 1912, 86 still remain and are all not protected as historical monuments since 2016.

Finally, another technology for the transport of tourists, this time on a smaller distance, was introduced at the occasion of the Paris expositions. The first European elevator was built by the engineer Félix Leon Edoux for the 1867 universal exposition and it allowed visitors to be lifted to the roof of the Galeries des Machines, and from that point of view, in the words of the great historian of architecture Sigfried Gideon, they "saw spread out below them not only the great city of Paris but a whole new world of glass and iron" (Giedion 1941: 208). Gideon further traces the first elevator for a structure "of skyscraper proportions" to the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Universal exhibitions are themselves the demonstration that urban infrastructures are at the same time practical and rhetorical. Their technical efficiency to fulfill the needs of cities attracting millions of visitors, is in itself a political statement and a legacy left by government administration in charge of the organization* For a recent anthropological commentary on the poetics of infrastructure, see Larkin (2013). Since universal exhibitions were (and still are) laboratories for modern experiments in design, architecture, and urban planning, their material impact is always hard to assess as it is both ephemeral and permanent, as well as uneven (Monclus 2009). But in the context of the 19th century world’s fairs, the development of transportation networks and technologies that they triggered might currently be one of the most important heritage of the heyday of industrial capitalism, both at the scale of the continent and within the urban centers of European metropolises that were experiencing structural transformations in the aftermath of the Industrial revolution.

3/ Spectacle as heritage, heritage as spectacle

However, what might be the most obvious aspect that links the history of capitalism with universal exhibitions, was the role of the latter in the development of a consumer culture at the end of the nineteenth century. In his historical overview of consumption since the 15th century, Frank Trentmann claims that: "The 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Exposition Universelle in Paris 1867 and later exhibitions displayed the products of the world in a way that blurred the lines between culture and commodity" (Trentmann 2016). Many scholars have already emphasized the role on the 1851 exhibition in the emergence of a culture of advertisement, something that was not self-evident in the first half of the 19th century. As Thomas Richards puts it: "The problem of creating a stable system of representation for commodities first began to occupy economists in the 1820’s, and it culminated in the Great Exhibition of 1851" (Richards 1990: 3). Anne McClintock, who studied the cultural effects of British imperialism, thus claims that: "with industrial commodities, decorative merchandise, ornamental gardens, machinery, musical instruments and industrial ore and thronged by thousands of marveling spectators, the Great Exhibition became a monument not only to a new form of mass consumption but also to a new form of commodity spectacle" (McClintock 1995: 57). In other words, in the context of universal exhibitions, capitalism was developing its own visual culture and its own system of representations for the promotion of commodities. Thus: "The Great Exhibition of Things […] showed once and for all that the capitalist system had not only created a dominant form of exchange but was also in the process of creating a dominant form of representation to go along with it." (Richards 1990: 3)

This cultural shift that announced the mounting importance of consumption in the urban lifestyles of European metropolises became even more evident in the fin-de-siècle exhibitions, as they featured an increasing number of places of consumption such as restaurants, cafés, kiosks, sampling counters, souvenir shops, as well as a growing number of urban peddlers around the exhibition sites (Tran 2012). But also, somewhat contrary to Marx’s original theorization of commodity fetishism in the first chapter of The Capital, universal exhibitions did not obliterate the production process of commodities, but in many cases, they precisely exhibited how commodities were produced, in order to assert their value. In a way that somehow prefigures the current mobilization of cultural heritage for the production of an added value to products, producers exhibiting their cheese, wine and chocolate at the fin-de-siècle universal exhibitions were eager to showcase their place of origin, traditional methods of fabrication, and the craft and labor involved in their production, in order to assert their singularity in an ever-expanding market with a growing international concurrence (Tran 2012, Vabre 2015). Thus, if universal exhibitions were decidedly oriented towards the future and glorifying new industries and technologies, by the end of the nineteenth century, this commodity culture also played a role in diversifying the narratives on display. Spatially, in terms of urban design, it marked a transition, already under way by 1867, from the organization of the exhibitions in a single geometric building, to the scattering of exhibits in various national, public or private pavilions of different styles disseminated across a larger perimeter of fair grounds. This rise of mass consumption in Paris spawned an entertainment industry with boulevard theatres, wax museums, and panoramas that permeated the content of universal exhibitions by the end of 19th century, now increasingly concerned with the entertainment of consumers rather than the education of citizens (Schwartz 1999).

Paradoxically, one instance of this architectural diversification within world expos with the development of leisure attractions that would provide multisensorial experiences, was the growing presence of folkloric exhibitions that took the form of reconstitutions and representations of historic cities or traditional villages, to be consumed by the public. Folkloric exhibits were already present at the Vienna universal exhibition, and participated in the construction of a national identity for Austria-Hungary by the Habsburg regime. But the Viennese exhibition of rural life that took place in 1873 was still devoted on furniture and farmhouse architecture, even though it could be considered as a precursor to the future ethnographic and colonial exhibits (Rampley 2011).

By the end of the 19th century, ethnographic displays in universal exhibitions took a more spectacular turn and featured ceremonies, exotic dancers, street markets, theatrical performances (Tran 2007), music concerts (Fauser 2005), spectacles in café-concerts. The Universal Exhibitions of 1889 and 1900 also featured reconstitutions of villages that depicted traditional life in different regions of France. Provincial villages from Provence, Britanny, Berry, Poitou and other regions were built on the site of the 1900 exposition and included restaurants serving regional dishes with waitresses dressed in traditional attire. Also, the ethnographic villages and the orientalist displays such as the Rue du Caire, that nowadays constitute certainly the most controversial heritage of universal exhibitions* As exemplified by the debates surrounding the closing in 2003 of the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie of Vincennes located in the Palais de la Porte Dorée built for the 1931 Paris Colonial Expostion. See Montjaret, Roustan and Edelman (2005)., were an occasion for the advertisement of products coming from the colonies of the European empires, such as wine from Algeria, tea from India, chocolate from Java. In this manner, they both participated in the development of a metropolitan entertainment industry and the creation of new consumer markets for the commodities imported from the colonies.

Finally, this emerging commercialization of the past or cultural difference, that in some ways accompanies the rise of commercial brands at the same period (Moor 2007), led to a new type of attraction in the last decades of the 19th century, the historic city: "Ancient buildings which had once graced the exhibition’s host city were faithfully and accurately reconstructed and assembled into a spectacular three-dimensional representation of a historical townscape, re-creating the distinctive features of a local architecture and its urban setting and evoking a vision of the city’s past" (Smith 2015: 203). The reconstruction of artificial historic cities was a international phenomenon by the end of the 19th century, with such displays present in exhibits in London and Edinburgh, as well as a reconstitution of old Vienna presented at the 1893 Chicago World’s fair. But the most spectacular was the reconstitution of the Old Paris in 1900 orchestrated by the illustrator and novelist Alfred Robida. The "Vieux Paris" erected on the Right Bank of the Seine between the Pont d’Alma and the Passerelle Debily, occupied a surface of 7500 square meters, and juxtaposed buildings of four different eras in the history of Paris: the Middle Ages, and the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was animated with minstrels, jugglers, musicians, guards, and had over 60 shops, such as an apothecary, a bookstore selling postcards, restaurants and taverns (Viche 2005), when were in vogue at that time in Paris as the "esprit gaulois" associated with the figures of Rabelais and Villon played an important role as an identity referent to a living past of the nation. In this regard, the Middle Ages presented by Robida was a popular version, carrying an essentially democratic discourse and highlighting the activity of artisans and small merchants rather than that of the lords and clergymen.

Walter Benjamin, who influenced a great number of Anglophone commentators on the cultural dimensions on 19th world expositions, famously claimed that the universal exhibitions were sites of pilgrimage for the commodity fetish. By this, he basically meant that at the exhibitions, industrial wares were exhibited, not as objects to be consumed, objects with "use value" to continue in Marxist terms, but only things to be admired, next to statues, paintings and other works of art. According to Benjamin and his followers, this interchangeability between the products of art and industry on display for the public created a "phantasmagoria" of capitalist culture. But Benjamin’s quip, of course, has to be nuanced. As we’ve seen, there were plenty of useable things for sale on the site of 19th century world expos, from food to postcards to cigars to umbrellas to newspapers, to souvenirs (Ogata 2002). Commodities just not just there to be desired, admired, and compared, many were also on display to be sold, consumed, or kept as souvenirs such as cutlery, collectors plates, postage stamps, tokens or postcards that now constitute a vernacular heritage for collectors of world’s fairs memorabilia around the world. The exceptional nature of these events of exceptional scale also left a mark of experience of visitors, and if the cultural heritage of these ephemeral manifestations of an emerging consumer society at the end of the 19th century is nowadays not as immediately present as the landmark buildings or urban infrastructures, it still survives it the form these little things and collectibles, that now constitute important visual and material documents on the commercial culture of past world expos, and have been recently featured in recent exhibitions and commemorative publications on the history of world expos.


World Expos, heritage, difference, value

The opening of a museum of World Expos in Shanghai in 2017 is an indication of the interest in commemorating the history and heritage of the World Expos. It is now the only official museum and documentation center in the world exclusively dedicated to Expos and authorized by the BIE. The location of this building in Shanghai, the city that has hosted the more important World Expo to date, at least in terms of scale, attendance and number of participants, is an indication of the global decentering of this cultural phenomenon originally associated the domination of European industrial capitalism.

I would however claim that despite the changes in the ideological orientation of world’s fairs, from a futuristic celebration of technological progress to an anxious exploration for solutions to the environmental challenges of tomorrow, their formula is deeply anchored in tendencies that already appeared in the expos of the end of the 19th century. According to many authors (Crawford 2015, Ingram 2015), the current economy is no more organized around the production of goods, than on the capture of attention. What has become subjected to scarcity, in a connected and hypermediated world is precisely the time of public attention to the overabundance of information, images, speech and sensory stimuli. For this reason, new forms of cultural goods would longer follow a trend towards industrial homogenization rather than the creation of singularities and differences (Lash et Lury 2007, Karpik 2007, Boltanski and Esquerre 2017). This can be easily applied to cultural products displayed or sold in national pavilions of universal exhibitions such as French wine, Russian caviar, or Norwegian salmon, but it could also now be applied to universal exhibitions themselves, as they are a singular events mobilized in the competition between global cities for the attraction of tourists and foreign investment. However, our presentation of the cultural heritage of industrial capitalism as materialized in 19th century world expos show that this symbolic competition between commodities and between cities was already present 19th century Europe.


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