December 1, 2017, by Jake Hodder

Reading Group: World Fairs

  • ‘Messages of Peace and Images of War: Modern Architecture and Diplomacy’ in Devos, R., Ortenberg, A. & Paperny, V., eds., (2016). Architecture of Great Expositions 1937-1959: Messages of Peace, Images of War, pp.1-22.
  • ‘Modernity on display: the 1940 Grand International Exposition of Japan’ in Kargon, R.H., Fiss, K., Low, M. & Molella, A.P. (2017). World’s Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, and Modernity, 1937–1942, pp.83-107
  • ‘Fairs between the world wars’ in Rydell, R. W., Findling, J. E., & Pelle, K. (2013). Fair America: world’s fairs in the United States, pp.72-99


After recently joining the Interwar Conferencing reading group, I was delighted to be asked to contribute a guest blog summarising the debates of our last session, which explored interwar world’s fairs and international expositions. This topic overlapped with the focus of my own postdoctoral research project: The Spectacle of International Human Rights: A Century of Intergovernmental Display at World’s Fairs, 1920-2020 (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust). Focussing a session on expositions opened up discussion of how various national attitudes towards internationalism were expressed visually and otherwise through the built environment and wider landscapes of these spectacular mega-events.

Each of our co-authored readings explored manifestations of the international exposition phenomenon in a particular region of the globe (Europe, Asia and the Americas) during the 1930s-1950s. Kargon, Fiss, Low and Molella examined plans for the Grand International Exposition of Japan, due to take place in 1940, but which was abandoned due to the outbreak of war. This text offered insight into the Japanese government’s approach to reconciling its national publics with the accelerating array of social and technological change occurring in the early twentieth century, which was broadly understood through notions of an encroaching international modernity. Focusing on architecture as a site of interpretation, the authors illuminate Japanese efforts to infuse emerging modernist forms with traditional elements from national and regional cultures, resulting in what they characterise as a “reactionary (Japanese) modernism” or “Pan-Asian internationalism”. This novel configuration of modernity and tradition was also reflected in wider plans for the fair, which was set to showcase technological innovation while commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of Emperor Jimmu’s ascension to the throne. The group noted how this reflected wider practices by which leading nation-empires sought to articulate the integration of imperial pasts with modernist futures via the medium of exhibitionary extravaganzas. More broadly still, our discussions noted how this text’s suggestion that the exposition’s planned outward-facing display of Japanese modernity existing alongside a more historically-rooted, inward-facing sense of national culture echoed Chatterjee’s theoretical work on the development of modern nationalisms in Asia and Africa. Finally, the reading group also noted that this piece offered a compelling methodological approach to sustained analysis of an exposition that was unrealised, foregrounding some aspects of the other readings we explored in the session.

Devos, Ortenberg and Paperny’s introduction also offered an overview of modernist architecture at interwar expositions, but their focus was on Europe between 1937 and 1958. In this text, especial attention was given to the ways in which sentiments of war and peace were expressed through the latest modernist aesthetics. Two key sets of questions were raised here. Firstly, were expressions of peace at these events sincere, blasé or contrived and did they purposefully camouflage simmering hostilities or threats of war? Leaning towards the latter explanation, the authors note the case of the unrealised Esposizione Universale di Roma of 1942. This event was being planned in the late 1930s with an intended title of “Exposition of Peace”, yet Mussolini’s Italy had already violated interwar treaties by invading Abyssinia and was rearming in anticipation of conflict in Europe. Secondly, this chapter questioned how modernist architectural aesthetics – now generally associated with aggressive, warmongering, Fascist nationalisms – were interpreted by fair-going audiences of the interwar era? Arguing that the link between architectural style and political beliefs was not so clear as scholars since have suggested, the authors highlight the range of nations, promoting varied political regimes, which each adopted modernist aesthetics at interwar expositions. Yet, paradoxically, this text notes that the interwar period was one in which architects, artists and politicians displayed great confidence in architecture’s potential as a medium for the expression of complex and nuanced political ideologies within and across national borders.

Finally, Rydell, Findling and Pelle’s text drew our focus to North America and the United States. Opening with the observation that the U.S. government’s failure to ratify the Versailles treaty left the nation in a “foul mood” concerning internationalism, this text mainly explored the national significance of U.S. World’s Fairs. As such, it addressed themes overlooked by the previous readings such as minority (in this case African-American) representation and employment at these events as well as their economic significance in an era of global depression. In discussing the importance of these American events, beyond national borders, the reading group explored them as intriguing cartographic spaces. We noted that existing literatures have, to some degree, highlighted the geopolitical significance of the arrangement of national pavilions and other structures within the ephemeral cityscapes created for world’s fairs. Building upon these observations, we also discussed the significance of the spatial form that U.S. organisers gave to various imagined geographies at the local and international level. For example, the place of the U.S. within divergent Pacific and Atlantic regionalisms were imagined at west coast and east coast fairs, respectively. Similarly, the model ‘Democracity’ housed in the perisphere at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, purported to imagine an American cityscape of the future. Yet, the model’s investment with a political ideology that would become a mainstay of the rhetoric of American foreign policy, justifying ‘humanitarian interventions’ across the globe, leads us to question whether this was in fact also a vision of the potential for extra-national Americanized cityscapes worldwide.

In summary then, this session mainly led the group to focus on parallel interwar nationalisms across three continents and the diverse, yet hazy, internationalisms of the future that their governing bodies visualised, separately, through the medium of monumental public display. We noted that the 1930s was a particularly intense period for this staging of international expositions, which, despite their name and monumental levels of investment, gave centre-stage to competing displays of a decidedly nationalistic flavour. In contrast, it was the 1920s that saw an intense period of international conferencing, which, despite giving less lavish and lasting visual form to the project of internationalism, seemed to reflect a genuine desire and optimism about the possibility of fostering peaceable relations.


Wendy Asquith is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. (

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