Presenting the state: world fairs and exhibitionary cultures

Although initially founded to promote global free trade, world fairs came to function as vehicles of cultural and political self-definition. Austria-Hungary staged the Vienna world fair in 1873 to this end and its participation in subsequent Fairs in Paris served the same goal. Continuation of these events after 1918 created new challenges: how should Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia present themselves, especially given that the latter had never been represented before? Austria portrayed itself as a land of Alpine hygiene, Czechoslovakia as a centre of technological modernity, while Hungary oscillated between asserting its historic identity and representing itself as a modern European state. In addition to participation at world fairs, these states organised international exhibitions at home as a form of cultural-political promotion. Most notable of these was the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno (1928) which promoted the image of modern, progressive Czechoslovakia.

This theme examines the strategies adopted at international fairs, such as Barcelona (1929/30), Chicago (1933/4), Paris (1937) and New York (1939/40), and also at events staged in the countries in question. It asks how and why the official state identities were conceived and presented through, for example, the architecture of the pavilions, the exhibits and the publications produced to accompany them. It also searches for patterns of continuity with pre-1918 representations in for instance the selection of topics, organisation of displays and accompanying events.

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The Hungarian Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair – photo: