history of World Expo

World’s Fairs originated in the French tradition of national exhibitions, a tradition that culminated with the French Industrial Exposition of 1844 held in Paris. It was soon followed by other national exhibitions in continental Europe, and finally came to London where the first real international exhibition was held.

Since their inception in 1851, the character of world expositions has evolved. Three eras can be distinguished the era of industrialization, the era of cultural exchange, and the era of nation branding.

Industrialization (1851–1938)

The first era could be called the era of ‘industrialization’ and covered, roughly, the period from 1800 to 1938. In these days, world expositions were especially focused on trade and famous for the display of technological inventions and advancements. World expositions were the platform where the state of the art in science and technology from around the world was brought together. The world expositions of 1851 London, 1889 Paris, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893, 1900 Paris, 1904 St. Louis and 1915 San Francisco exhibitions can be called landmarks in this respect. Inventions such as the telephone were first presented during this era. An important part of the image of World’s Fairs stems from this first era.

Cultural exchange (1939–1991)

The 1939 New York World’s Fair and the 1949 Stockholm World’s Fair represented a departure from the original focus of the expositions. From then on, World’s Fairs became more strongly based on a specific theme of cultural significance, and began to address issues of humankind. They became more future oriented and ‘utopian’ in scope. Technology and inventions remained important, but no longer as the principal subjects of the Fair. “Building The World of Tomorrow”(New York, 1939) and Sports (Stockholm, 1949) are examples of these ‘new’ themes. Cross-cultural dialogue and the exchange of solutions became defining elements of the expos. The dominant Fair of this era arguably is Montreal’s Expo 67. It was also during this time, specifically in the 1960s, that BIE organizers started calling World’s Fairs “Expo’s”.

Nation branding (1992–present)

From Expo ‘88 in Brisbane onwards, countries started to use World Expositions more widely and more strongly as a platform to improve their national images through their pavilions. Finland, Japan, Canada, France and Spain are cases in point. A large study by Tjaco Walvis called “Expo 2000 Hanover in Numbers” showed that improving national image was the primary participation goal for 73% of the countries at Expo 2000. In a world where a strong national image is a key asset, pavilions became advertising campaigns, and the Expo a vehicle for ‘nation branding’. Apart from cultural and symbolic reasons, organizing countries (and the cities and regions hosting them) also utilize the world exposition to brand themselves. According to branding expert Wally Olins, Spain used Expo ‘92 and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona in the same year to underline its new position as a modern and democratic country and present itself as a prominent member of the European Union and the global community.

Today’s world expositions embody elements of all three eras. They present new inventions, facilitate cultural exchange based on a theme, and are used for city, region and nation branding.

2010 Shanghai World Expo

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