1893 World’s Fair

October 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

You can't really tell but the people in the background were moving around.  So cool!

You can’t really tell but the people in the background were walking about. So cool!

If you’ve ever read the book Devil in the White City, you’re probably familiar with the 1893 Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair, that took place in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the New World.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should because it was kind of a big deal.  Chicago had just endured the Great Fire a little over 20 years before the fair and we were up against New York for the bid to host.  At this point in history, Chicago was mainly considered an industrial city with no real culture to speak of.  At least, that’s how New Yorkers felt.  When we beat them for the hosting opportunity it created a bit of a scandal because this fair was supposed to show how ahead of the times the United States was (the previous World’s Fair was in Paris and debuted the Eiffel Tower, so there was a lot to live up to).  So we won and Chicago architects got to work, basically putting together an entirely new city in a few years.  And I mean that literally – the fair took place over about 600 acres and new buildings were erected just for the fair.  They weren’t expected to outlast the event and most did not, with the exception of the Museum of Science and Industry Building.  It was pretty impressive and basically blew everyone away.

The Field Museum was basically founded off of the contents of the fair, as many of the cultural artifacts procured were donated to form a permanent collection.  To highlight this, the Field put together their own brand new temporary exhibit that is all about the World’s Fair (and no, it does not touch on the murderous man featured in Devil in the White City…).  We docents were trained on it over the weekend and it was extremely cool.  There are artifacts there that have not been seen in over 100 years and the exhibit really makes you feel like you’re back in 1893 and wandering through on your own.  Many products we know and love had their first exposure in the Fair: Cracker Jack, Aunt Jemima, modern electricity, Shredded Wheat, PBR beer and the Ferris Wheel.  Yup, the Ferris Wheel, which was the USA response to the Eiffel Tower.  The very first one ever was seen at the Fair and stood 250 feet tall while holding over 2,000 people at once.  There were roughly 35 giant train sized cars that held about 60 people each and it took nearly 20 minutes for one rotation.  It was bigger than the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier today by about 100 feet, if you can imagine that.  And we have no reports of anyone dying while riding it!  Amazing indeed.

It’s interesting because the way that the anthropologists went about getting collections back then is NOT how they do it today.  Their view was more ethnocentric back in the day, meaning that if something or someone was even the slightest bit strange, it was deemed “exotic” i.e. “savage” or “barbaric”.  This lead to cultural insensitivity in now-shocking proportions.  For example, people from other cultures and countries were basically brought to Chicago to live and show what their life was like – they were on display 24/7 during the fair and not exactly given a boat ticket home after that.  It’s appalling to us nowadays but the exhibit does a decent job of giving us the whole truth, as ugly as it is.  See, back then scientists genuinely thought that other cultures were dying out and we had to take what we could to preserve them for future generations.  This is obviously not the case but in the age before the internet or TV, it was hard to showcase different plants, animals, people or places without having tangible evidence and so people tried to justify it.  It was certainly not the right way to go about things and I was glad it was addressed in the exhibit.

Even the water and flags moved around!

Even the water and flags moved around!

Also in the Field’s exhibit are giant screens projecting moving photographs.  This was one of my favorite parts.  They basically took photos of the fair, dressed people in time period clothing and placed them in front of green screens and then digitized it using fancy computer technology so that it looks like these old time photos are videos.  All of us docents were kind of blown away by that in particular.

There are many things to see and experience in this exhibit but don’t take my word for it – the entire thing runs until September 2014 so there’s plenty of time to check it out!

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