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Florence Pinot de Villechenon, professeur associée à ESCP Europe

An event carrying hopes

By Florence PINOT de VILLECHENON, professor at ESCP Europe, Doctor in Western civilization History.

It is natural to associate universal exhibition birth to nineteenth century industrial boom. It would be simplistic to consider it as the accomplishment of economic revolution initiated in the Occident in the eighteenth century.

Indeed circumstances surrounding their appearance, and their repetition shows it comes from human creative genius, like demiurge always tend to surpass him. If those international events exist it’s only because creativeness is part of human being; always trying to push the boundaries of what is known; always searching for innovations able to bring solutions to everyday life on earth.

In nineteenth century as in twenty-first century universal exhibitions created an impulse making that special events hope conveyor. 

Universal exhibition origin

Since ancient times fair express human needs to meet and exchange their products. Nowadays, these meetings extend into modern fairies and markets, but at the beginning the aim was mainly commercial. The lack of trade dimension is what distinguished universal exhibition, so this bring us to wonder why they appear ?

During the eighteenth century and early nineteenth, industrial exhibitions are created in France and Great Britain. It shows engines and delivers rewards. Because of their desire to provoke national production development by emulation, they constitute the precedent to our universal exhibitions.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, capitalism ends economic revolution initiated one century earlier in Great Britain and lead the concept of industrial exhibition to maturity. Actually, mechanization added to railways and steam navigation enable large scale production and distribution extend to the entire world. Products, designed to meet most of people needs, are carrying progress. Technical progress, we expected those products to lead to social and human progress. At that time, the industrial powers have drawn geopolitical conclusions and legitimized by this way their colonial expansion: after colonializing, these companies became civilizing. The prominence of knowledge, empirical knowledge and industrial development, make this view dependent on Encyclopedia ideas, Saint-simonism and positivism. Machine, men’s daily work, popularized science are celebrated. In this environment, universal exhibition concept emerged: an event that will gather all products of every nation. That was in London, in 1851.

During 160 years several universal exhibitions succeeded, mainly in Occident, then more lately, in Asia. France marked those events by organizing in Paris, five large exhibitions that became references such as those of 1889 and 1900.

Universal exhibitions follow but do not resemble, one another. In a global context, our universal exhibitions can’t be the same as those of post-war and neither as those of the nineteenth century’s. However, there are specific features that since the beginning still exist and give them a particular profile.

Universal exhibition characteristics

Firstly, universal exhibitions are real progress contest as they favour -and reward- innovation. From the phone to television, from electricity to nylon, from conveyer belt to digital technologies ; there is no exhibition that didn’t present an innovation or a technological performance.

The desire to teach and illustrate is the heart of the approach, education is a fundamental characteristic. As Diderot said it is to draw up “a general view of human mind efforts” to contribute to advances in knowledge. That’s the reason why nineteenth century exhibitions honoured engines running.

However, despite these edifying intents, universal exhibitions changed into fun items and became real festive global events. Attractions of all kind are necessary to respond to the public natural entertainment instinct.  They allow both maximise number of visits and help to obtain positive financial balance. Festive side is now part of universal exhibitions. Then, despite their cosmopolitan side, they also promote very well national values. Concentration in space and time (limited to six months) make exhibition showcase to express the welcoming country pride. Finally, since the beginning, universal exhibitions are designed to underline and register all human genius can produce and to arouse the wish to go further. As teaching required, sum up, classify, and order was needed. At the same time, it was necessary to predict developments coming, show the break beyond which human creates and innovates. If the first aim of register is nowadays completely obsolete, universal exhibitions are still obeying to the double duty of testify and predict.
They are composed by assessment of the past and exploration of the future.

Success criteria

Beyond these aspects, these successful giant festivals are the result of alchemy between various factors. Firstly place and date because universal exhibition regulatory framework set that they have to be space out in time and to come from desire of a state and a city which want to apply for hosting. Moreover, adopting a theme or thread supposed to layout knowledge and experiences development that they will provoke.

Finally, their size, the energy required and costs they generate; the agreement between various actors –local authorities, State, companies – and enthusiastic support of inhabitants are necessary to ensure the success of such events.
That’s all the challenge of EXPOFRANCE 2025.


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