The newest products. The latest technologies. Futuristic buildings. The potential and promise of the world of tomorrow! World’s fairs showcased all of this and more in elaborate and popular expositions that took place in cities around the globe for more than one hundred years. A new Wolfsonian teaching exhibition, Crisis and Commerce: World’s Fairs of the 1930s, is on view at FIU’s Frost Art Museum through January 5. Curated by Peter Clericuzio, academic programs manager at The Wolfsonian and adjunct lecturer in FIU’s history department, the exhibition complements a history department graduate course on world’s fairs that Clericuzio is teaching this semester.

Included are approximately seventy items drawn from The Wolfsonian’s extensive materials on world’s fairs—posters, architectural drawings, photographs, sculptures, medals, souvenirs, ephemera, and more—that together convey a tension inherent, though largely unacknowledged, in the exuberant world’s fairs of the 1930s. During that decade, a kind of golden age for world’s fairs, there was an abundance of expositions, with seven world’s fairs: in Antwerp and Liège in 1930, Chicago in 1933–34, Brussels in 1935, Paris in 1937, and New York as well as San Francisco in 1939–40. But those years were also a time of increasing global unrest.

“These fairs had an extraordinary visual and material power and pull. Almost none of us have experienced the world’s fairs of this era, and I hope this exhibition gives people a sense of their incredible draw,” says Clericuzio. He explains that the world’s fairs of the 1930s were linked by the theme of progress, the promise of a better future through technology. Yet, despite the fairs’ forward-looking optimism, the global situation was growing increasingly bleak.

“This exhibition explores the two sides of the coin of world’s fairs during that decade. It was an exciting world of modernity and progress and prosperity, but right around the corner was the political and economic turmoil of the time,” explains Clericuzio.

Themes explored in Crisis and Commerce include: modernity and progress, often expressed through the architecture of the fair buildings themselves as well as through a celebration of technology; commerce and prosperity, as cities, countries, and corporations marketed themselves through the fairs; harmony, celebration, and commemoration, marked by the emphasis on the contributions each participating nation made to the world community and a focus on international harmony; and turmoil, which, while rarely explicitly acknowledged, was an undercurrent until the outbreak of World War II in 1939–40, during the New York and San Francisco fairs.

A maquette by sculptor Alfonso Iannelli titled The Threatening Shadow (pictured), a model for a sculpture proposed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair that was ultimately rejected, points to the difficult world situation at the time. Clericuzio explains that Iannelli intended the forty-foot-high sculpture to serve as a warning to America about the growing threats of Nazism and Fascism. “You can see the group of soldier’s helmets along with bayonet-like protrusions and a row of arms raised in a Nazi or Fascist salute. Iannelli wanted to awaken the American public to the threats to world peace posed by the Nazis and Fascists,” says Clericuzio.

The exhibition is a teaching tool for Clericuzio’s course World’s Fairs: Design, Display and Politics 1850–1950. The students spend several class sessions in the exhibition gallery, and multiple assignments are structured around the exhibition. In addition, other courses at FIU have toured the exhibition.

The challenges of curating the exhibition included narrowing down the selection of items to be displayed from The Wolfsonian’s extensive world’s fairs’ holdings. “The Wolfsonian has one of the best collections of world’s fairs’ materials anywhere in the world, especially American and 1930s items,” Clericuzio notes. “In addition to investigating the themes and backdrop of the 1930s fairs, this exhibition is also a means to show—and show off—these materials.”  



Poster, Chicago World’s Fair – A Century of Progress, 1833–1933, c. 1933
Weimer Pursell (American, 1906–1974), designer
Neely Printing Co., Chicago, Illinois, printer
Offset lithograph
40 5/8 in x 27 1/8 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr Collection, 85.4.90

Bottom (click to enlarge):

Postcard, Exposition Internationale – Liège 1930, 1930
H. Michel, designer
Imprimerie Bernard, Liège, Belgium, printer
5 7/8 in x 4 1/8 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 86.19.14

Ashtray, 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition San Francisco Bay, 1938
Homer Laughlin China Company, Newell, West Virginia, manufacturer
Glazed ceramic
6 3/8 in dia
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, XX1990.1633

Maquette, The Threatening Shadow, c. 1938
Alfonso Iannelli (American, b. Italy, 1888–1965)
Painted plaster
11 1/4 x 17 x 16 in
The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 83.6.2

Article Image(s):