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Pondering the Meaning of World’s Fairs

26 May

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World’s Fairs became popular centuries ago for giving visitors experiences they could not get anywhere else. From the beginning, one of the main goals was to promote peace and harmony, providing a singular place where visitors could experience world cultures and new technologies – as nothing less than a form of entertainment.

That experience takes on fresh energy as part of a new (and described as once-only) exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, carrying an undeniable torch for the world’s fair the Crescent City hosted in 1984, which was exactly a century after its only other moment in the world’s fair sun. The exhibition, which closes in early August, includes approximately 200 objects shown at major and minor world’s fairs from the London exhibition in 1851 to the 1939 New York fair, carefully chosen through a research grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Many of the featured objects will be seen in the United States for the first time.

Since “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939” doesn’t include artifacts from the locally missed 1984 event, it seemed the perfect opportunity for NOMA to host a panel discussion of world’s fairs as catalysts for change, with panelists including several business leaders who played significant roles at the fair now almost three decades ago.

After their onset in London in 1851, world’s fairs became a trend across Europe. They also captured the interest of New Yorkers Horace Greeley and P.T. Barnum (later of Barnum and Bailey), who created their own version of the Crystal Palace in 1853, in New York. Their fair was called the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. After this first American world’s fair, the European tradition became an American one, and fairs were held in many cities around the country.

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There were often different sections dedicated to technology and world culture. The cultural section showed authentic simulations of everyday life of the cultures each pavilion represented. There were performances and demonstrations of indigenous activities and rituals, plus environments that replicated the architecture, dress, and food of the cultures. The technology pavilions were usually sponsored by the largest corporations in the United States, including General Motors, AT&T and Kodak. Every exhibit at a true fair was geared toward progress, toward optimism. And every exhibit hoped to instill a spirit into their visitors that the world of tomorrow would always be better than the world of today.

By the time the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair rolled around, the mission had changed. No longer was the aim of the fair to showcase technology and progress, but to provide entertainment – “a six-month party,” according to Pres Kabacoff, the CEO of HRI Properties.  Maurice Cox, Director of Tulane City Center and Associate Dean for Community Engagement at Tulane School of Architecture, said the fair’s aim was to “mix spectacle and activities from around the world along with development.”

The development that came out of world’s fairs often led to some permanent monument or icon. For example, the Eiffel Tower was the main symbol of Paris’ World’s Fair, called the Exposition Universelle of 1889, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition featured a giant wheel created by one George Ferris. In the case of New Orleans, no specific monument or icon remained. But an entire district was revitalized. The year before the fair started, every building in the New Orleans Warehouse District had been for sale.

“Buildings were literally falling down,” said Allen Eskew, partner at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and, in 1984, project director for the exposition. This particular World’s Fair provided the incentive and momentum to jumpstart a plan to revitalize the district and open up the Riverwalk. The fair, which – counting the inside portion and the parking lots and other service buildings – filled more than 100 acres of New Orleans land, created a giant footprint of development that would continue. Right before the fair opened, in fact, many new hotels sprang up to house the estimated 12 million visitors.

Although the fair fell far short of that number, most locals bought season passes and seemed to show up every day. According to those involved in tourism today, some of the improvements that came out of the fair included the coming together of different industries, the increase in tenants in the area, and many local traditions first seen at the fair. The decorators of the fair were Mardi Gras cratfsmen, moving their industry beyond making floats and into architecture artistry.

In the months and then years after the fair, even the highest-rent spaces in the city were filling up, whereas earlier the city was in a real-estate depression. Tropical Isle, a popular bar in the French Quarter, had its debut at the 1984 World’s Fair. And French Quarter Festival, now a popular annual tradition, started as a reward for French Quarter merchants for being so patient during construction before the fair.

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Sadly, the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition wasn’t all fun and good times. There was a lot of financial hardship as well. The federal government didn’t want to kick in much money as it normally did for other World’s Fairs, and, due to an inflated estimate of visitors compiled by the tourism industry, the number of visitors to the fair was severely overestimated. The fair became famous – or infamous – for having such low attendance – at 7 million guests, as opposed to 12 million. It even declared bankruptcy during its run. Compared to the most notable world’s fairs, with attendance between 25 and 50 million, this fair was a failure.

In the early years of world’s fairs, few Americans had the ability to travel much, especially overseas, so such events provided a variety of foreign amusements in one environment that was more easily accessible to Americans than the actual places. Once mass tourism began in the 1960s, however, along with the advent of movies and television to fill the typical American’s leisure time, traditional outdoor amusements began to lose their luster. The popularity of television in particular lessened the ability of the world’s fairs to introduce innovative technologies and products.

In America, where television was and is especially popular and widespread, the cost of making world’s fairs attractive to the general eye was becoming more and more costly. The probability of breaking even plummeted, let alone the notion of turning a profit. The New Orleans World’s Fair also had to compete with the Summer Olympics, and got sandwiched between the Knoxville World’s Fair of 1982 and the Vancouver World’s Fair of 1986.

Despite its so-called failure, though, many believe the overall effect of the fair was a tremendous success in urban renewal. One of the things that needs to be considered when deciding on hosting a world’s fair or planning one, according to Bob Becker, CEO of City Park New Orleans, is what the residual benefit will be once the fair closes. The city was looking for an opportunity to develop its riverfront and get the warehouse district moving in a different direction, and the 1984 World’s Fair provided that opportunity.

The general consensus among members of the panel was that the most important factors that must occur in order to create a revitalization like the one New Orleans had in 1984 are deadlines and the desire to look good to the rest of the world. When there is an event drawing near that will turn the world’s eyes upon your city, people will go above and beyond to make sure those eyes like what they see.

Other examples of this phenomenon in New Orleans include the most recent Superbowl, before which the airport was completely renovated, and the upcoming Tricentennial in 2018, celebrating the city’s founding, for which such renovations as a streetcar expansion, revitalization of the parks, and improvements of downtown and Canal Street are already in the works. Especially after Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans seem intent to prove they have created not simply a recovery but a transformation.

So far in our history, there seems to be no better example of this commitment than the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, which took a district in extreme disrepair and turned it into a vibrant neighborhood and a center for commerce, tourism and the arts.

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Photos from “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939,” now at the New Orleans Museum of Art. For more information, please see