At their core, world’s fairs, such as Expo 2020 in Dubai — the first ever to be held in the Middle East — are no less than an attempt by global cultures to demonstrate how, by imagining the future, they are together enabled to pre-empt tomorrow.
On one practical level, international exhibitions are designed, as is Expo 2020 Dubai, for nations to showcase their individual achievements. But on another, seminal level, they convey the message that though these nations’ respective cultures are clearly diverse, there is nevertheless unity within that diversity; that though as nations they exist apart and afar from each other on the face of the planet, they remain one human collectivity, a global village, as it were; and that though at times they never saw eye to eye, they are at an international gathering aimed to foster harmony in their global dialogue.
This has always been, for well over 150 years, the ethos of international expositions — grandly designed, greatly admired phantom worlds exuding at once both majesty and enchantment for the millions attending them — all the way from The Great Exhibition of London in 1851, which at the time the Illustrated London News depicted as a “commencement of a new era of peace and progress” to the ongoing Expo 2020 Dubai, whose theme is Connecting Minds, Creating the Future and which is expected to to attract 25 million visitors, beating the record of its predecessor, Milan’s 2015 World Expo, of 21.5 million. It will be, at any rate, the biggest in-person event in the world this year, outside the Olympic Games.
A checkered history
To be sure, world’s fairs have a checkered history that tell of prescient planners who dared to imagine and, well, shall we say, to go where no one had gone before — even at the cost of ridicule by those among their contemporaries unable or unwilling to volt themselves beyond their own time and place of immediacy.
Consider as an example the aesthetically structured gateway arch to the Paris 1889 Universal Exhibition (Exposition Universelle), which at the time sundry artists, writers, belle lettrists and even architects considered a monstrosity, and as one of them put it, a “ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack”.
Happily, to the benefit of native Parisians and the delight of foreign tourists, the Eiffel Tower is still around today and still reminds us of when France, along with the rest of Europe, enjoyed whatever few halcyon years were left them of La Belle Epoque.
Another city that benefited — at no cost in controversy — from its world’s fair was Seattle, whose site for the fair was conceived by its planners as an engine for urban renewal, to be later incorporated into the very utilitarian fabric of the modern city itself. This was done so successfully that today you walk the streets of the site without realising that an international exhibition had ever been held there.
In fact, so effortlessly was it all done that the Space Needle, which was as iconic of Seattle’s fair — known as Century 21 Exposition — today hides in plain sight in Seattle much as the Eiffel Tower does in Paris.
World’s fairs have always mesmerised us as carnivals of culture, spectacles of innovation and fields of dreams, international gathering places that are, as French philosopher Patrick Geddes described them, on the occasion of the 1900 Paris Exposition, “millionfold witnesses to the essential and organic unity, the true internationalism of civilisation and progress”.
Progress through aspirational visions
It is clearly the third leg of that tripod, the anticipation of social progress through aspirational visions, that most concerns world’s fairs, as evidenced by the emblematic themes chosen to define them, say, Expo 2020 Dubai’s being “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, New York’s 1964 World’s Fair “Peace Through Understanding” and Milan’s Expo 2015 “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”.
Alas, though technological breakthroughs at these international exhibitions, such as the telephone, introduced at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition, went on to become part of our everyday lives, aspirational visions have not always, in this polarised world we inhabit, fared that well.
Yet, there’s no questioning the fact that the language of these exhibitions speaks of common human meaning and invite all of us to freely look for and then find a place for ourselves in that meaning.
Though not fortunate to be there, I for one harbour no doubt that Dubai these days is suffused with that sentiment.
Enough to drive this columnist, known for his eccentricities, to invert the tradition of postcards and send one from Washington to his friends already there telling them that he wishes he were there — for he very much does.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile