Wednesday, December 31, 2008

EXPO Dreamers – Be Careful What You Wish For - It Can Backfire

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 China and, for an academic, fortunately has the knack of writing in a way normal people who don’t spend all the day in the stacks can read after a day’s work. He recently wrote an interesting piece on history, Shanghai, his new book Global Shanghai 1850-2010 and muses on the EXPO from a historian’s perspective. Well worth a read – click here.


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 London in 1851 keen to inspire old Europe with all their new world energy. As the centrepiece of their exhibition space they displayed a statue - Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave (left). It portrays a Greek girl (Christian we assume) captured by the Turks (Muslim naturally) and put up for sale in a Middle Eastern slave market (where of course bad things happen to good Greek girls). It attracted a lot of attention, not least because she had her tits out which will always appeal to a British audience even if The Sun hadn't conceived the notion of their Page 3 daily nudie quite yet. The art critic Robert Hughes argues that: 'By the 1840s Powers was incontestably the most famous sculptor America had yet produced.'It was pure Americana in many ways - the triumph of Christian virtue over sin aimed point-blank at those Puritan sensibilities that did then, and still do, weigh large in American culture. It worked so well that American Clergymen urged their congregations to go and see The Greek Slave.


However, like many American ideas, it didn’t translate in Europe quite the way they hoped. Supposedly reflecting America and Christian virtue, Punch was quick to remind readers of the actual fact of American slavery with a parody piece The Viginian Slave (below left). Remember that in 1851 America was yet to outlaw slavery, the Civil War was yet to be fought – America looked somewhat less than progressive and cutting edge in many British eyes.


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).



16 comments:

Bob.Jacobson said...

Paul, a fascinating discovery -- but does the misinterpretation of a statue in the UK -- something that's happened often -- translate into death to all global World Expositions?

I'd welcome more your insights on the Shanghai Expo and why you believe it is in "chaos." Chaos defines most Expos in progress. There is no über-Expo-meister to contain the energy of so many nations and NGOs all doing their own thing. The UK's problems are very particular to the UK and the contending egos involved in its pavilion design and construction.

The reason the US no longer funds Expos dates back to a NATO spat with Spain prior to the 1992 Seville Expo. There was no good sense about it.

Jeff Wasserstrom may be an optimist, but in trying times, I prefer an optimist to a confirmed pessimist. Perhaps things will get better with effort.

PS I'm a member of the American team pushing for a US Pavilion. You'll find a complete, accurate account of our effort at our website:

http://unitedstatespavilion.com

and on Facebook at:

http://tinyurl.com/us-pavilion-on-facebook

Paul French said...

who knows maybe it'll be even more exciting? - remember President McKinley was shot dead by an anarchist at the Pan-American EXPO in Buffalo in 1901. Teddy Roosevelt stepped up.

Μαριανα said...

this is amazing, i was trying to find informations about the relation and the history behind these two figures, very good work, excellent

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