Exhibit Review

Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s

National Building Museum; Washington, DC

October 2, 2010–July 10, 2011


The history and impact of World's Fairs is captured in a National Building Museum exhibition that focuses on the six American World's Fairs of the 1930s. Despite the privations of the Great Depression, a World Fair served as a message of progress, showing visitors the many industrial innovations that the future would bring.

The exhibition brings together a myriad of artifacts, period films, and photographs to create a three-dimensional, in-depth look at the phenomenon of the World Fair. Divided into seven sections, the content flows well from panel to panel and room to room in a visually appealing, colorful, and linear exhibition design. Media is thoughtfully paired with objects and signage, so that all learning styles can access the exhibition. Labels are well written and the content is easy to read through careful word choice. However, the font size used for object labels is often small, and the italicized script used to indicate the owner of an object is almost impossible to read. Coupled with the indirect lighting that creates shadows over text, sections of exhibition labels can be difficult to read easily.

Innovative design features include a large cylinder topped with a map that shows the locations of the six fairs with a carefully chosen collection of memorabilia that represents each location. A panel from the Pageant of the Pacific mural, painted for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, adorns one long wall, an example of the many talented artists who contributed to the fairs, often through the Works Progress Administration. A reproduction scrapbook allows visitors to flip through several pages of this document showing the travels of three girls to the Chicago Century of Progress International exposition of 1933-1934. Although the original owner and creator is unknown, the scrapbook is a lively record of their adventures.

The underlying story of the exhibition remains strong throughout: that the World Fair offered hope and escape to Americans experiencing the Great Depression. From the initial explanations of the "why" and "what" of World's Fairs, to the transportation, electrical, and home technologies that evolved from the World's Fairs, and from the experiences of fair visitors to the legacies of them, the exhibition maintains its base in the political and economic issues of the 1930s. Balancing the excitement that the public brought to the fairs is solid scholarship on how corporations used World's Fairs to advance their products. Ford Motor Company, for example, spent $12 million to promote Ford cars in all six fairs.

"Welcome to the Fairs" starts the exhibition experience with a solid grounding in the societal context in which the fairs were born—the Great Depression, the New Deal, the rise of fascism in Europe—as well as the history of expositions, with London's Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851 setting the standard for all future expositions.

"A Fair-Going Nation" describes the six World's Fairs of the 1930s. Although World's Fairs and America's participation does not end in 1940, these six fairs are considered the heyday of the World Fair and offer a focused view on the World Fair experience. Crisscrossing the United States, these fairs gave regions a chance to highlight their strengths, provide jobs to Americans, and offer a unique experience to visitors.

"Building a Better Tomorrow," in keeping with the focus of the National Building Museum, delves into the design and architecture of the fairs, and the opportunities it created for the building professions during the Depression. The designs, drawings, and models not only span architecture and building design, but also consumer goods, landscaping, and the overall design of the entire fairgrounds.

"Better Ways to Move" showcases "planes, trains, and automobiles"—transportation innovations that occurred both outside and inside the fairs. New methods of travel brought people to the fairs and allowed them to move freely within the fair itself. Buses, trains, sky trams, airplanes—a wide range of modes of travel are explored in this section.

"Better Ways to Live" highlights "houses of the future," model homes that offered a glimpse into the future—a future that included new ways of vacuuming, new building materials, wide-open floor plans, and modern furnishings. Visitors could aspire to owning one of these homes when the Depression ended and industry had revived.

"Better Times," focuses on products that would improve the daily lives of people. Today many of these products are commonplace, like nylon stockings and televisions, but at the time, they seemed unattainable. Other ideas are still waiting for their place in everyday life. A particularly interesting exhibit includes a cast of "Elektro the Motor Man," a robot who was touted as being one of the benefits that science and technology would bring to fair visitors.

"Legacies of the Fairs" brings the exhibition to a solid conclusion, showing that despite the temporary nature of many of the fairs, the innovations they brought to the public became reality or the inspiration for new technologies. One section describes what happened to the location of each fair—some buildings have been repurposed and are still being used; other fairs were totally dismantled and now only exist in photographs and memories.

In addition to the exhibition's narrative, the curators included panels labeled "Progress?" in each section with the intent of providing visitors with a "pro and con" look at the World Fair theme of progress. One such panel compares the positive future of cars—expanding people's ability to travel faster and access resources—with the negative future of cars—increased traffic and pollution, and the decline in pedestrians. These panels pose thoughtful questions, enabling the public to compare the promises of the World Fair to today's reality.

Curated by Laura Burd Schiavo, an assistant professor at George Washington University, and Deborah Sorensen, National Building Museum assistant curator, the exhibition pulls content from a wide variety of lenders and collectors. A flown mail envelope showing the Graf Zeppelin flying over the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition comes from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum. A vanity and ottoman created by furniture designer Gilbert Rohde are on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery, and a simple comb and case, illustrative of the many types of memorabilia associated with the fairs, belongs to the Wolfsonian-Florida International University. The Library of Congress and New York Public Library are rich sources for photographs as are the historical societies in the cities that hosted the fairs. Many private collectors contributed items, as did the National Building Museum itself.

A 210-page exhibition catalog is available, Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s, edited by Robert W. Rydell and Laura Burd Schiavo (Yale University Press, 2010). Full of rich black-and-white photographs, the book is an excellent resource and offers further details for visitors who want to know more about this fascinating part of American and world history. Essays include "Old Wine in New Bottles: Masterpieces Come to the Fairs" and "Pop Goes the Future: Cultural Representations of the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair."

Accompanying the exhibition is a blog, which offers curious visitors a chance to interact with the curators, as well as access to full-length videos from the fairs. A wide array of programming has been planned, and audio and video from past programs is available on the exhibition website. http://www.nbm.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/worlds-fairs.html

Cara Seitchek
Smithsonian Institution