Montana State University

MSU historian is part of national exhibit on world's fairs

October 1, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


This postcard shows the Golden Gate International Exposition on the San Francisco Bay. (Image courtesy of Robert Rydell).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University historian who specializes in world's fairs is guest curator of a national exhibit that opened Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C.

Robert Rydell, the Michael P. Malone Professor of History at MSU, said the new exhibit focuses on world's fairs during the Great Depression and how they influenced modern architecture. Expected to run about nine months, the exhibit covers 5,000 square feet in the National Building Museum and contains "loads" of objects representing the splendor of modern industrial designs. Visitors can participate in a variety of activities, including the manufacturing of souvenir tin cans.

"This has been wonderful," Rydell said. "I have worked with people on different exhibits before. This was the first time I have had a fairly major role of shaping the content of an exhibit, really working with the intellectual content."

Buildings that were erected for the world fairs between 1933 and 1940 were designed to give Americans hope for the future, Rydell said. Instead of the neo-classical buildings of previous fairs, the Depression-era fair buildings were stream-lined. The Ford building looked like a giant gasket. Designers and architects built a futuristic hangar, and General Motors' Futurama Exhibit inspired the interstate highway system of today.

"These fairs were very much about taking people's minds off of the immediate horrors of the present and getting them to think about the future possibilities of America," Rydell said.

A press release from the National Building Museum said tens of millions of visitors flocked to world's fairs in the midst of the Great Depression. "Designing Tomorrow: America's World Fairs of the 1930s" is the first-ever exhibit to consider the impact of all six American world's fairs of the Depression era on popularizing modern design and creating a modern consumer culture. Those fairs were held in Chicago, San Diego, Cleveland, Dallas, San Francisco and New York.

Leading corporations and the federal government used world's fairs during the 1930s as laboratories for experimenting with innovative display and public relations techniques, and as grand platforms for introducing new products and ideas to the American public. The spread of home electrification in the 1930s meant that innovations displayed at the fairs -- from television to all-electric kitchens -- were within reach, or soon would be.

Rydell said the idea for the Washington D.C. exhibit began about eight years ago as museum curators thought about the influence of world fairs on modern design and architecture. As staff started to develop the exhibit, they came across Rydell's work and asked him to join the team.

Rydell has devoted 35 years to studying world's fairs. He has served on international juries that evaluated world fair exhibits. He was in China three years ago to observe the construction of Shanghai 2010. His newest book on world's fairs will come out in mid-October. Rydell co-edited "Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s" with Laura Schiavo, assistant professor of museum studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and lead curator of the exhibit at the National Building Museum. The book, published by Yale University Press, contains an essay by MSU's Robert Bennett, an assistant professor of English.

Rydell attended the opening reception for the exhibit on Sept. 30 and plans to discuss the future of world fairs during an October forum tied to the exhibit. When the exhibit closes in Washington, D.C, Rydell expects it to travel to other museums around the country. Among those may be the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where MSU professor and avalanche expert Ed Adams is part of a permanent exhibit titled Science Storms.

Many people don't realize that world's fairs still occur, because the last world's fair in the United States was held in 1984 in New Orleans, Rydell said.

"But 70 million Chinese know otherwise," he said.

Shanghai 2010 was the "biggest site for a world's fair any time, anywhere," Rydell said. The next two world's fairs will be held in South Korea in 2012 and Italy in 2015.

Rydell said he likes to visit world's fairs while they are being constructed and dismantled. Instead of focusing on events, he prefers to get a sense of the sites and what the fairs will change.

"All of these fairs had a terrific effect on the built environment," he said. "Parks, even museums, like Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, are the direct result of these expositions."

Even Bozeman shows the influence of world fairs, he said. One of the original designs for the MSU campus was prepared by Cass Gilbert, an architect who designed several world's fairs structures.

Rydell said he became interested in world fairs and expositions because of the way Americans represented themselves and represented other people from around the world at these events.

Work on the Washington D.C. exhibit was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private donors.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu