Milan 2015 and the Legacy of World's Fairs

13 April 2015

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | History


If ever there was a way to twist my arm and persuade me to visit romantic, historic Milan this summer, the prospect of a huge, international celebration of food is a pretty convincing one. Expo Milan 2015 is just such an event, but my primary interest is not in pizza (honest), but in Expo 2015’s place in the legacy of World’s Fairs.

Steel engraving of the Crystal Palace interior, London 1851. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

21st-century fairs (now known as expositions) have been related to me as somewhere between the UK’s Millennium Dome and a theme park – a very ‘modern’ phenomenon – however their roots are firmly planted in a rich historical movement. From the Crystal Palace of London 1851 and the fairytale complexes that sprung up in American cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia in the late 19th century, fairs dazzled visitors with exhibits from all over the world. This was the golden age of the World’s Fair and booming New World communities were eager to prove their mettle by putting on an exposition grander than the last, as well as reaping the advantages of the millions of tourists that they attracted.

The Expo Milan 2015 logo

A fair hasn’t been held in the US since the 1980s, but the mantle has been firmly taken up by the rest of the world, with expositions since in Japan, China, South Korea, Canada and Australia to name but a few. This year the World’s Fair is returning to its European roots, albeit in a highly evolved state. With its principal theme ‘Feeding the planet, energy for life’, Expo Milan 2015 will run for 6 months, exploring agriculture and gastronomic innovation through a series of themed areas, while countries from all over the world will promote their own products and ethos in independent exhibits.

In 2016 Adam Matthew will release World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions, which will contain digitised primary source material from fairs from the early 19th century right up to Milan 2015. The evolution of exposition form and function can be charted through its ephemera, photographs and official records, as well as the key products, personalities and events that intersected with these vast international platforms.

Expo Milan 2015 is a fascinating opportunity to reflect on the past, but it is also looking to the future. Through the project Expo 2015+100, organisers are collecting ephemera and documents relating to the fair in recognition of the significant historical value that items and documents from the fairs hold and will continue to hold.

The centre-piece of Expo 2015 under construction. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Cesco 82.

From early examples of globalisation to the development of pivotal technologies, World’s Fairs offer a truly multidisciplinary way in to modern history, and one I can’t wait to continue exploring at Milan Expo 2015.

About the Author

Hannah Phillips

Hannah Phillips

I am an Editor and have been with Adam Matthew Digital since October 2012. I have worked on a range of fascinating projects including American Indian Histories and Cultures, World's Fairs and Medical Services and Warfare.