Pardee School of Global Studies
Center for the Study of Asia
ASIA AT THE WORLD'S FAIRS
An Online Exhibition of Cultural Exchange
"Cambodian dances in the temple of Angkor." Paris Colonial Exposition, 1931.
The Arrival of Asia:
Asian Cultures on Stage at World's Fairs, 1851-1939
The first modern international exhibition or “world’s fair” in 1851 in London’s “Crystal Palace”
launched the idea of bringing together the world’s cultures and goods in one large scale exposition as a showcase of human progress. During the following decades, the popularity of this type of venue spread and more than 100 such international fairs would be held in more than twenty countries around the world during the late 19th and 20th centuries. While the early world expositions were primarily organized to highlight the latest innovations in science and technology from around the world, even with London's spectacular early exposition, a wide variety of cultural items were also on display. These vast exhibitions thus became a focal point where the world’s people and cultures found a space for communication, exchange, understanding, and inspiration.
Beginning with the 1851 exhibition, Asia has been prominently represented in these universal
expositions. For a public fascinated by the prospect of seeing itself in a world context, the exhibitions provided many fairgoers with their first encounter with Asia’s rich, vibrant, and diverse histories and cultures. Taking place during a time of widespread colonialism, the notion of the “world” presented at these fairs had many layers of meaning. In many cases, local arts and crafts were selected and showcased by colonial administrators and trading companies, and through the perspective of those who were not from the given culture. At the same time, in some cases, Asian countries also began taking an active role in confronting and redressing the asymmetry of power in their relationship with the West by presenting in these exhibitions their own image of their country and culture. These expositions served as a stage that displayed a complex history of conflicts, contradictions, and engagements of Asia with the world.
Culture engages, and it comes with its own languages of communication. As culture migrates, the
motives and even the perspective with which it had originally been presented are sidelined and it begins to foster transcultural communication with other peoples in a unique dynamics of its own. This dynamics comes with a give and take that ends up enriching all sides. Our online exhibition focuses on the presence of Asian cultures in these early international fairs and the stimulus they gave to transcultural interactions in areas as diverse as performing arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, print, and even food. Not to minimize the unequal political and economic backdrop of the various early world fairs, this exhibition intends to create a platform for an open discussion of the contributions Asian cultures have made on the world stage through these fairs and the enormous impact they had on millions of fairgoers for whom the "world" as a concept became real for the first time.