A few historians have been piling in on the Shanghai 2010 EXPO issue and looking back to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, remembered in London these days for having giving us Crystal Palace (left), a name then appropriated by a crap South London football team. Behind the scenes EXPO 2010 is in disarray - at the moment the whole thing looks like being paid for by the Shanghai government as one big lump of ‘stimulus’ – the Americans are on the verge of pulling out due to lack of cash and sponsors (they apparently have a very sensible law that no public money can go into funding their stand at EXPO); the UK has singularly failed to interest anyone and raise more than a bit of loose change (though the government can, if it chooses, just pay for the lot) and other countries are less than keen given the financial situation.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a great historian of
Wasserstrom is also a ‘sunny side up’ kind of guy in that all-American way – he invariably sees the good side of things. Of the first EXPO (the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London) he notes, ‘the “First World’s Fair,” that 1851 London event had the goal of giving visitors an increased appreciation of the international dimensions of the present and the technological possibilities of the future.’ Very upbeat and surely it did – but it’s worth remembering that one man’s idea of the future is another man’s nightmare and that 1851 was a bit of a cock up for the Yanks. So let’s remember that, as it’s not mentioned much these days.
The Americans came to
However, like many American ideas, it didn’t translate in
Some Americans used the gaff to try and raise the issue – Frederick Douglas and Lucy Stone pointed out that the statue represented little about sin and virtue and a lot about the degradation of the enslavement of women – something American should think upon as they were busy doing it. The black activist William Wells Brown staged an anti-slavery demonstration at the Crystal Palace declaring, ‘As an American fugitive slave, I place this “Virginian Slave” by the side of the “Greek Slave” as its most fitting companion.’ For the rest of the Exhibition demonstrations by abolitionists continued around the statue until the American officials finally took it away, hopefully shamefacedly but probably not.
So be careful what you wish for – America in 1851 may have wanted to show the ‘technological possibilities of the future’ and the greatness of the USA- but they ended up showing themselves as a slave owning nation (Britain had ended slavery in 1833; the French just managed to look superior to America by abolishing it in 1848) who’s racism was so ingrained none of its officials could even see the irony of using the Greek Slave statue. And while hundreds of thousands filed past the ridiculous and insulting centrepiece of the American pavilion back home the black folks were given something else to look at (see left).