The first World’s Fair was held in London in 1851. It's a tradition that continues today; Expo 2012 takes place May 12 - August 12 in South Korea.
A new exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at World's Fairs, 1851 - 1939, highlights the ongoing importance and influence of innovation at the World’s Fairs. It's the first time many of these decorative objects have been on display in the United States.
Architecture Not Built to Last
What do you think of when you hear the words...World's Fair? Maybe it’s the Eiffel Tower created as the entrance to the 1889 World's Fair in Paris; the Ferris Wheel, the largest attraction at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago; or songs like "Meet Me in St. Louis" from the 1944 musical film starring Judy Garland; it's set the year before the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
It’s often the architectural marvels that are remembered, but most were built as temporary structures.
Thousands of pieces of decorative art - crafted from ceramics, metal, glass, silver, porcelain, or wood - still remain; displayed at the World's Fairs, these were purchased by collectors or museums.
Attending Two World's Fairs as a Child
Catherine Futter is the Helen Jane and R. Hugh "Pat" Uhlmann Curator of Decorative Arts curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She says World’s Fairs first captured her imagination as a young child.
"I grew up in New York City, so I went to the 1964 (New York World's Fair) at least a couple of times," Futter says."In 1967, my mother took my sister and me up to Montreal to see Expo 1967. So I’ve always had this love of them."
When Futter was in graduate school at Yale, she started thinking about the architecture at World’s Fairs. And later, as associate curator at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, she studied World’s Fair acquisitions that she described as the "epitome of style and epitome of craftsmanship." An idea for an exhibition has been percolating for years, as she moved from museum to museum.
"And fortunately it’s landed here and it’s now the culmination of my vision," Futter says. "And I have to tell you that it’s exceeding all my expectations. To see it all come together, it’s pretty fabulous."
Objects Brought Together with Theme of Innovation
Futter and Jason Busch of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg selected the 200 objects in the exhibition, settling on the themes of innovation in technology and materials. They traveled the globe, acquiring loans from all over Europe and the United States, and adding works to the collection of the Nelson-Atkins. There’s an immense Gothic revival bookcase; a delicate Tiffany brooch with champagne diamonds; an Art Deco glass chair.
"Every object had to fight for its place, because we saw tens of thousands of objects on our search for the ones in the exhibition," Futter says.
The exhibition spans the first World’s Fair in London in 1851 to the 1939 fairs in New York and San Francisco. The World's Fairs promoted innovation, competition and consumerism, but Footer says they also led to a cross-cultural dialogue as the first global meeting places. She describes a pair of Japanese vases with Samurai fighting under cherry blossoms from the Philadelphia 1876 Centennial.
"Its form is Japanese, its subject matter is Japanese and yet it starts to become very European very quickly, Futter says. "(It's) actually catering to European taste. So it’s Japanese looking at Europeans who’d been looking at Japanese things."
Energy of the World's Fairs
There are moments in the exhibition where you might experience the energy of a fair. There's a projected vintage loop of footage from World's Fairs, including the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and the first moving sidewalk, also in Paris, in 1900. Visitors can peer into stereoscopes and View-Masters with vivid 3-D images, or virtually try on jewelry in the exhibition. As you walk through the galleries, the colors of the walls and the casework change, from classical to a bit of a flourish to streamlined and modern.
"What I hope is that as they move through, they start feeling a lightness with the Art Nouveau. The colors start changing, the objects of course change," says Futter. "And when they come into the last section, they’re going to see things that relate to their own lives, objects in this section are really in production today, such as the Barcelona chair and the Aalto Savoy vases. Both of those are still made today."
Innovation Today and in the Past
Another element that connects viewers to today is outside the museum. The Nelson-Atkins commissioned a temporary structure called the Sun Pavilion, a collaboration between Kansas City-based Generator Studio architects and LA-based artist Tm Gratkowski. Front and center on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins, it’s made of shipping containers and a canopy of 150 solar panels.
"I think it’s very beautiful and will do what it’s supposed to do which is to draw people in, think about innovation today," says Futter. "(It will also) draw people up to the exhibition, so they can see what are innovations in the past."
The exhibition took years of planning and months of installation work. Futter says the team of about 100 designers, curators, handlers, and staffers at the museum has been as innovative as if they were putting on their own World’s Fair.
Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at World's Fairs, 1851 - 1939, April 14 - August 19, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, MO.