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Research and Teaching Exhibitions in World History


Researching and Teaching Exhibitions: Opportunities for Engaging World History in Context

Peter H. Hoffenberg


     World History classrooms often provide strong foundations for teaching comparative and regional histories; additionally, the history of a particular global interaction. The Atlantic slave trade comes to mind as a helpful example of such a multi-society, trans-national world institution and experience, as does the wide sweep of transcontinental and seaborne empires. On the other hand, it is rare for our students to be able to learn from historical moments in which the known or knowable world seemed to gather together, converging in one time and place. World War battlefields involving multiple armies could provide an example, as might the Hadj, among other multi-racial and multi-ethnic religious pilgrimages.

     Another helpful example of an admittedly different nature could be the international exhibitions and world's fairs, held rather commonly between 1851 in London and the early 1960s in New York City. They were nearly annual events in the 1880s and 1890s, and continue to this day. Studying such events encourages our students to get a sense of how multiple peoples were understood, wanted to be understood and were connected in one historical moment and location. These were freeze-frames of the world, 'world-pictures' resulting from and encouraging the major networks of trade, science, ideas, art, imperialism and food. Louise Purbrick explores below such nearly global networks of commodities and raw materials running in, through and out of exhibitions. Those and other international, if not global, interactions, were not without creative tensions and destructive inconsistencies, seemingly boundless opportunities and seemingly boundless hierarchies.

     The following brief discussion offers a few ways to use exhibitions in the high school and college classrooms as part of a world history curriculum, and is also intended to introduce the accompanying essays by Purbrick and other scholars in this World History Connected forum. Those essays cover a wide-range of topics and approaches, and provide not only useful guides about integrating scholarship and teaching, but are also helpful for students wishing to move beyond a general understanding of exhibitions and towards a deeper, more focused understanding. The scholars explore ways to think about specific topics in world history – such as the Soviet Union or human displays – and how those were part of the nearly limitless world of exhibitions. In turn, the essays provide ways to think about how such events were creative, and not only representational, parts of experiencing, changing and critiquing the modern global experience. As Denise Gonyo argues below, we could even think about the exhibition as a traveling, if not nearly global, cultural form, found in the West and the East, the North and the South. Its adaptation in a particular context helps us understand how globalization can be assimilated, used and resisted in particular contexts.

     Some of the following course activities can be done individually; others are intended for study groups, requiring direct student interaction. Both types of projects can generally fit during the 19th- and 20th-century sections of course syllabi, and would include major host cities, Paris, Chicago, Hanoi and Calcutta among them, and significant nation-states and colonies, including those in North America, Western and Central Europe, the Pacific, South Asia, Northern Africa and East Asia. The number of host countries is relatively limited, but not the group of participating ones. Students will not be surprised to read and learn about Great Britain, or Japan, or the United States as exhibition participants, but might be when they learn about the participation of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, the Kingdom of Hawai'i and the Ottoman Empire, and the hosting of major events by overseas colonial communities? Students might also be surprised by and find helpful the inclusion of specific historical groups, such as "Native Americans," as discussed in Dave Beck's essay, and the Indian National Congress, the subject of Gonyo's contribution. Both groups played significant roles in the history of exhibitions. Class sessions devoted to topics as varied as the history of art, trade, science, and cities can also be enhanced by exploring the exhibitions.

     A list of potentially helpful and easily accessible sources and collections is included at the end; many are readily available online. That is followed by a brief list of exhibition scholarship most often cited among scholars, teachers and students studying these fascinating and revealing examples of world history. That list is intended as an introductory one, and most certainly is neither exhaustive nor all-inclusive.

     Firstly, what would be some of the goals of the exhibition curriculum, in addition to using a variety of primary sources and noting how significant events do not always unfold the ways that their organizers intended, and their meanings can vary at the time and since? Those are not unworthy classroom objectives. Additionally, though, studying exhibitions provides a moment to study globalization as contemporaries understood and experienced that term. The spectacular and popular events were intended to be international, universal or global, either presenting a type of exhibit, which was international, or courts organized by many different countries and colonies. Some exhibitions hosted over fifty different polities. 'East and West' and 'North and South' met in these grand exhibition halls. Walking around the Paris Universal in 1889 enabled men, women and world to observe, experience, consume and purchase much of the entire known world at that time.

     Those moments were national, global and social stock-taking opportunities, measuring society and the polity at the time, in light of where they had been and where they were going, and in light of their place in the world. The halls represented 'progress' and 'modernity' as such iconic terms were defined and measured at the time and place, both in relative and absolute criteria. Purbrick explores the meanings and representations of such ambitious goals by following the dynamic travels of eventually stationary exhibits. What did their travels and labeling suggest about the world? The modern and the traditional, the local and the foreign, were all on display: the gargantuan Corliss engine and the eye-catching stone Irish cross, the South Asian weaver and Berlin's industrial laborer. In a sense, these were the world history textbooks writ large, experiential and tangible. They were the living nexus for transnational networks, and a reminder of the powerful connections between the local and the global.

     As the exhibits and courts were self-consciously arranged in light of available resources, space and technologies, students using the same limits can better understand the challenges of representing one's country, or industry, or past. What limited what could be displayed and thus, not always intentionally, conditioned how others viewed one's own country? Students can understand that a development seemingly as banal as refrigerated ships or ship containers could dramatically change what was available for visitors to see, consume and purchase, and thus what could shape how those visitors understood the country being represented. What a world of difference between seeing a wax vegetable or fruit from Australia, and sampling that same vegetable or fruit after its chilled voyage across the seas? There were political and ideological limits and motivations, as well, as Tony Swift explores in his review of how the Soviet Union represented itself at a series of post-1917 exhibitions – and how others might have interpreted and used that representation. Students interested in global politics and the Cold War will gravitate to Swift's appreciation of such issues on the stage of the world's fairs held in major cities.

     What are some of the specific classroom projects?

     Students assume the roles of organizers and commissioners. Select a host city and year, then embark on thinking through what could be exhibited and how those displays would be arranged and labelled. The following essay on the shows sponsored and organized by the Indian National Congress explores some of those foundational organizational issues. Should the event be organized by political divisions, or by the type of exhibit? Would you invite a country at which you had recently been at war? Who will pay for the exhibits, and why would they? Should exhibits be sold on the premises, why or why not? What technologies and labor are available? The result could be a formal document inviting 'the world,' or some part of it, listing the exhibits desired and informing potential participants of the advantages of displaying. Perhaps students could prepare a chart locating each country or type of exhibit, thereby creating a picture of the world at that moment and place.

     Each student or group of students selects a type of exhibit, which is generally global, or universal, such as clothing or art. Purbrick's essay considers the important choices of useful mid-Victorian raw materials and natural resources. Guido Abbattista and Giulia Iannuzzi's contribution charts the significance of "the public exposition of living humans." Students then research and organize how they would select, transport and arrange the exhibits in their court. They provide illustrations and a catalogue for their court. This enables them to get a sense of world comparison at a particular moment in time, and of the history of material culture. How does Chinese art compare with Italian art, and how is 'art' defined at that time and place? Or, if students chose machinery, which technologies were available for display and demonstration?

     The class, or groups within the class, select one country or colony that interests them, and trace its participation at a series of exhibitions at different times and places. Compare and contrast exhibits from India since the middle of the nineteenth century. What stayed the same? What changed? Who arranged the exhibits? This helps develop a sense of how a significant group within a particular country thought of itself in terms of others, and how it wanted to be seen. If one chooses a colony, were there significant differences in the exhibition displays after formal political independence?

     The class, or groups within the class, selects a type of exhibit, such as machinery, or art. Compare and contrast those displays at various different exhibitions. Did the French and Japanese display the same exhibits in the same ways over time? If not, assess the causes and significance of the changes and differences.

     Divide the class in three groups for a public debate: (1) supporters of the proposed exhibition, (2) opponents of the event, and (3) legislators who will have to decide whether or not to provide public funding. Each side researches and then engages in an in-class debate, placing that debate in a particular context. Debate the upcoming Great Exhibition in London's Hyde Park, held in 1851, or the New York World's Fair, held in 1939 as the world was going to war. Legislative assembly debates and newspapers will have plenty of materials for the three groups.

     Interest in nationalism and national identity was certainly strong at the exhibitions, uneasily coexisting with bolder cosmopolitan and universal claims. Students can study a country's exhibits and catalogues to better understand how at least some in that country understood their national identity at the time. What did the exhibits and catalogues say about the country's past, stage of development and relationships with other countries? How did, for example, Austria's exhibitors and commissioners want others to think of Austria? What were the various ways that the Indian National Congress identified Indian 'nationalism' at its own shows and how did those identities compare with the ones generated by imperial British shows about India?

     Students continue to be engaged with challenging questions of race and gender. Exhibitions are also helpful in understanding that pair in a particular context. Were there Women's Courts, for example, in which women's labor and other significant public and private endeavors were exhibited apart from other displays? Do students think that views on race affected what was displayed and how it was displayed? For example, did Western racialism or racism affect the way that non-Western peoples participated and were put on display, including the anthropological displays discussed by Abbattista and Iannuzzi? There are many materials relevant to studying such issues at the exhibitions, sometimes rather blatant and, at others, more subtle. Thinking in context deepens their understanding as historians of such meaningful terms, ideas and relationships.

     Consideration of race often leads to discussions about empires and imperialism, and vice versa. Students can study the idea, experience and institutions of empires in context by considering both self-conscious imperial exhibitions, such as those held in London in 1886 and Paris in 1931, and by how empires represented themselves, including the Ottoman, Russian, and Chinese empires. Comparing British imperial exhibits over time helps students understand the historical development of imperialism, its meanings in context and the arguments marshaled in public to support such institutions and activities.

     Exhibition sponsors, commissioners, exhibitors and visitors intended to leave mountains and mountains of written materials. Those include official and unofficial guidebooks, photographs, government reports and debates, more personal memoirs and correspondence, newspaper and journal articles, as well as the material culture of the exhibits themselves. Other materials are often found by exploring the papers of institutions and organizations that participated or held a view about an event. Those include labor unions, museums, chambers of commerce and art societies. Students will find many of these materials available online or reproduced as microfilms.

     There is also a healthy collection of secondary monographs, book chapters and refereed articles studying significant exhibitions, or types of exhibits, and their wider meanings. The authors of such works come from various fields in addition to History. Sociology, cultural studies, literary criticism, art history and communications have all been well represented among exhibition scholars over the past twenty-five years, or so.

     Where to go for sources after students have searched using subject (e.g. "international exhibitions") and title (e.g. "The Paris Universal Exposition of 1878") key words in your school library? The following provide sources for different exhibitions, generally in English, but some sources are also in French.

     Robert Rydell, ed. The Books of the Fairs: Materials about World's Fairs, 18341916 in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (Chicago, American Library Association, 1992), esp. Rydell, "The Literature of International Exhibitions," 1–62.

     John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle, eds. Encyclopedia of World's Fairs and Expositions, 2nd edition, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008).

     Paul Greenhalgh, Fair World: A History of World's Fairs and Expositions from London to Shanghai, 18512010, Papadakis Dist A C, 2011.

     The Book of Fairs on microfilm at Yale University Library. Contents are listed and described in "Books of the Fair Reel Listing." Includes French, German and English language materials.

     "World's Fairs: A Global History of Expositions" (online) Adam Matthew Digital, Ltd., 2016 at

     Donald G. Larson Collection on International Expositions and Fairs, Special Collections Department, California State University, Fresno, California, USA. Phone: 559–278–2595 and

     National Art Library, London, houses an extensive collection of exhibition reports and commentaries, in addition to photographs of the events and exhibits. National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, United Kingdom. Phone: +44 20 7942 2000.

     Among the exhibitions included in the above sources and of relevance to the study of world history and globalization are:

Crystal Palace (London) Great Exhibition 1851
New Zealand International 1865
St. Petersburg (Russia) Garden Exposition 1869
Vienna Weltausstellung 1873
Philadelphia Centennial 1876
Sydney International 1879
Toronto Industrial 1879
Melbourne International 1880–81
Moscow International 1882
Amsterdam Internationale Koloniale 1883
Calcutta International 1883–84
Antwerp Exposition Universelle 1885
New Orleans North, Central and South American 1885–86
South Kensington (London) Colonial and Indian 1886
Glasgow British Empire 1888
Melbourne Centennial 1888
Dunedin New Zealand and South Seas 1889–1890
Madrid Exposicion Historio-Americana and Exposicion Historico-Europea 1892
Antwerp International 1894
Lyon Internationale et Coloniale 1894
Earl's Court (London) Empire of India 1895
Crystal Palace (Sydenham, London) South African Exhibition 1895
Earl's Court (London) Empire of India and Ceylon 1896
Brisbane Queensland International 1897
Brussels Exposition Internationale 1897
Buffalo Pan-American 1901
Hanoi Francaise et Internationale in 1902–03
Cork International 1902
Delhi Durbar and Art 1903
St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Centennial 1904
Exposition Coloniale Marseilles 1906
White City (London) Coronation Exhibition of the British Empire 1911
Festival of Empire, London 1911
Samarang (Java) Colonial Exhibition 1914
San Francisco Pan-Pacific International 1915
Marseilles Nationale Coloniale Marseilles 1922
Calcutta 1923
Strasbourg Coloniale, Agricole et Industrielle 1924
Wembley British Empire 1924–25
Antwerp Colonial and International 1926
Edinburgh Colonial 1927
Paris and Vincennes Coloniale Internationale 1931
British Empire Johannesburg 1936
Empire Glasgow 1938
New York 1939
New York 1964–65

Selected English-language scholarly writings on transnational and global exhibition topics:

Abbattista, Guido, Moving Bodies: Displaying Nations and National Cultures: Race and Gender in World Expositions from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century (Trieste: Edizioni Universita di Trieste, 2014).

Aldrich, Robert, "The Difficult Art of Exhibiting the Colonies," in Pascal Blanchard, Sandrine Lemaire, Nicolas Bancel, and Dominic Thomas, eds., Colonial Culture in France since the Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014), 438–452.

Auerbach, Jeffrey A. and Peter H. Hoffenberg, eds. Britain, the Empire, and the World at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008).

Auerbach, "Empire Under Glass: The British Empire and the Crystal Palace, 1851–1911," in John McAleer and John M. MacKenzie, eds. Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 111–141.

Benedict, Burton, The Anthropology of World's Fairs: San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Berkeley: Scolar Press, 1983).

Bennett, Tony, "The Exhibitionary Complex," in Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley and

Sherry B. Ortner, eds. Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 123–154.

Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (New York: Routledge, 1995).

Blancard, Pascal, Nicolas Bancel, Gilles Boetsch, Eric Deroo, Sandrine Lemaire, and Charles Forsdick, Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Empire (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

Bloembergen, Marieke, Colonial Spectacles: The Netherlands and Dutch East Indies at the World Exhibitions, 18801931 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2006).

Boisseau, T.J. and Abigail M. Markwyn, eds., Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World's Fairs (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

Celnik, Zeybuo, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth Century World's Fairs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

de Cauter, Lieven, "The Panoramic Ecstasy: On World Exhibitions and the Disintegration of Experience," Theory, Culture & Society 10 (1993), 1–23.

Deyasi Marco R., "Indochina, 'Greater France' and the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris: Angor War in Blue, White and Red," History Workshop Journal 80 no. 1 (Summer 2015), 123–141.

Fauser, Annegret, Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World's Fair (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005).

Ganim, John M., "Medievalism and Orientalism at the World's Fairs," Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 38 (Summer 2002), 179–190.

Geppert, Alexander C.T., "True Copies: Time and Space Travels at British Imperial Exhibitions, 1880–1930," in Hartmut Berghoff, et al., eds. The Making of Modern Tourism: The Cultural History of the British Experience, 16002000 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 223–248.

Geppert, Alexander C.T., Fleeting Cities: Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siecle Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Greenhalgh, Paul, Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs, 18511939 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988).

Hawkins, Michael C., "Undecided Empire: The Travails of Imperial Representation of Filipinos at the Greater America Exposition, 1899," Philippine Studies 63 no. 3 (September 2015), 341–363.

Hinsley, Curtis M. and David R. Wilcox, eds. Coming of Age in Chicago: The 1893 World's Fair and the Coalescence of American Anthropology (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

Hoffenberg, Peter H., An Empire on Display: English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Kamehiro, Stacey L., "Hawai'i at the World Fairs, 1867–1893," World History Connected (online), October 2011,

Kargon, Robert H., Karen Fiss, Morris Low and Arthur P. Modella, World's Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, and Modernity, 19371942 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

Kramer, Paul, "Making Concessions: Race and Empire Revisited at the Philippine Exposition, St. Louis, 1901–1905," Radical History Review 73 (Winter 1999), 74–114.

Lenger, Friedrich, "Defining the Modern Metropolis: Universal Expositions from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Mid-Twentieth Century," Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 58 (Spring 2016), 33–46.

di Leonardo, Micaela, Exotics at Home: Anthropologies, Others, and American Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Luckhurst, Roger, "Laboratories for Global Space-Time: Science-Fictionality and the World's Fairs, 1851–1939," Science Fiction Studies 39 no. 3 (2012), 385–400.

Masey, Jack, Cold War Confrontations: U.S. Exhibitions and their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Lars Muller Publishers, 2008).

Mathur, Saloni, "Living Ethnological Exhibits: The Case of 1886," Cultural Anthropology 15 no. 4 (November 2000), 492–524.

Maxwell, Anne, Colonial Photography and Exhibitions: Representations of the 'Native' and the Making of European Identities (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1999).

McArthur, Colin, "The Dialectic of National Identity: The Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1893," in T. Bennett, C. Mercer and J. Woolacott, eds. Popular Culture and Social Relations (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1986), 117–134.

Mitchell, Timothy, "The World as Exhibition," Comparative Studies in Society and History 31 no. 2 (April 1989), 217–236.

Moore, Sara J., Empire on Display: San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).

Parezo, Nancy J. and Don D. Fowler, Anthropology Goes to the Fair: The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

Qureshi, Sadiah, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Rydell, Robert W., All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 18761916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Scaglia, Illaria, "The Aesthetics of Internationalism: Culture and Politics on Display at the 1935–1936 International Exhibition of Chinese Art," Journal of World History 26, no. 1 (March 2015), 105–137.

Simmel, Georg, "The Berlin Trade Exhibition (1896)," Theory, Culture & Society 8 (August 1991), 119–123.

Sotiropoulos, "'Town of God:' Ota Benga, the Batetela Boys, and the Promise of Black America," Journal of World History 26, no. 1 (March 2015), 41–76.

Tenorio-Trillo, Mauricio, Mexico at the World's Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

Ungar, Steven, "The Colonial Exhibition (1931)," in Pascal Blanchard, Sandrine Lemaire, Nicolas Bancel, and Dominic Thomas, eds. Colonial Culture in France since the Revolution (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014), 209–216.

Wang, Jian, Shaping China's Global Imagination: Branding Nations at the World Expo, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

van Wesemael, Pieter, Architecture of Instruction and Delight: A Socio-Historical Analysis of World Exhibitions as Didactic Phenomenon (179818511970), 2001.

Wilson, Mabel O., Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

Young, Paul, "Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order," in Louise Purbrick, ed., The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).

Peter H. Hoffenberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and Affiliated Professor, University of Haifa, Israel. He is the author of An Empire on Display English, Indian, and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War, (Berkeley 2001). He can be reached at


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