For Part I, "Remains of the Fair", click here
Part II: Unusual Encounters
The first World's Fairs were celebrations of industry, of Man's achievements, and of the supremacy of Western civilization. In order to showcase this, the Fairs themselves were extraordinarily elaborate operations with incredible edifices and pavilions for science and industry. As for the supremacy part, well, one way to do this was to compare Western and non-Western civilizations, so Fairs shipped over people from other countries and set them up in their own tents and villages in the amusement section usually called the "Midway". Exhibiting "primitive" people was a way to bring forth how advanced the White race was in comparison. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (also known as the Columbian Exposition), visitors could see exotic dancers, the "Street in Cairo", an African village, people from the Pacific Islands, from Africa and other attractions. This video gives a nice overview of that Fair and its Midway:
When you consider that 27 million Americans visited the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, out of a total population in the US of 60 million at that time, you can imagine that this was the first time in the US that other cultures were being represented on such a large scale, and that many Americans were coming into contact with these cultures- or rather with the representation of these cultures- for the first time. How was the collective consciousness of the country shaped through this Fair? Did people all go home believing theirs was the most advanced country? Did they take the Midway exhibits with a pinch of salt? Did it make them want to travel to these far-away places? In other words, what were the unintended consequences?
Most of us will agree that these representations were racist and imperialistic. This happened at many Fairs and the politics of representation have been debated by scholars of World's Fairs for many years now. Many, led by Robert Rydell, have issued sharp criticisms of these unethical representations.
Surely, though, there is more than meets the eye. Surely these people who are "represented" have agency, are thinking, experiencing, also coming into contact with new people. Does this not have any value at all? Yes, the Fair organizers had a desire to prove the supremacy of the United States. But why assume that the "represented" were not able in some ways to take advantage of their presence at the Fair? Why assume that all visitors bought in to the cultural representations? What about relationships that may have developed between the various people being exhibited at the Midway? How about their own prejudices towards other cultures? I find it simplistic, and even a little racist, to only look at the main narrative of White Americans vs the rest, and not try to think about all that creating this stage would have done in terms of cultural understanding or misunderstanding at so many different levels.
Ok, let's take the example of the Philippine Village at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair:
The Philippine Village was a 47-acre site with more than 1,000 Filipinos from more than 10 different ethnic groups.
"Groups of native Filipino peoples were arranged so as to demonstrate levels of progress or degrees of civilization, from the Negritos, who were described as "the lowest type humans in the Islands" to the Christianized Visayan, described as "a high type of native peoples." The Igorots were placed just above the Negritos on the continuum, and the Muslim Filipino peoples were placed between the Igorots and the Visayan."
And according to NPR:
"Mia Abeya, a Maryland resident whose Igorot grandfather was among those on display, says Igorots ate dog only occasionally, for ceremonial purposes. During the fair, they were fed the animals on a daily basis. 'They made them butcher dogs, which is really abusing the culture of the Igorots,' Abeya tells NPR's Greg Allen.
These quotes suggest how degrading it must have been for the people being exhibited. But, the NPR piece continues: "But Abeya says the experience had a positive side, too. She notes that many Igorots attended school for the first time while in St. Louis. After returning to the Philippines, Abeya's grandfather made sure all of his children and grandchildren received an education."
In addition to this, many of the members of the ethnic groups in the Philippine Village did not know, or had never seen, members of the other ethnic groups from the Philippines until they met at the Fair. It is extraordinary to think that these folks had to come to St. Louis to meet each other, something that is covered in almost none of the accounts of this Fair. What would have happened when they met? What would they have said to each other? What kinships would they have uncovered? What plans for continued communication, political or trade alliances would they have planned for when they returned home? If you think of the Fair as a stage, rather than just a museum, then the opportunities for exchange and unusual stories of encounter are limitless. Behind every story of course are the sub-stories, the hidden ones that make the narrative so much richer, more interesting and more complex. What will we uncover if we dig?
This are just a tiny glimpse into the unique, wonderful, strange, life-changing and culture-shifting encounters that happened- or may have happened- at World's Fairs.
Stay tuned for Part III next week, "Political Theater"