September 20, 2011 — World's fairs have produced some of the most exciting inventions of our times. The elevator was featured at the 1853 fair in Dublin. The telephone was unveiled in Philadelphia in 1876. Fax machines were the big reveal at the World's Fair in New York in 1964, and more recently, green building technology was featured at the 2010 fair in Shanghai.
An inter-disciplinary symposium Friday at the University of Virginia will examine a side of World's Fairs that is not part of the traditional narrative.
"Dissenting Scripts and Other Voices on the World's Fair Stage" will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for History, Literature and Culture/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Part of the Center for International Studies' University Seminars in International Studies grant program, the symposium will focus on women's issues, cinema, questions of nation and state, and why World's Fairs are relevant today.
Cristina Della Coletta, associate dean for humanities and the arts in the College of Arts & Sciences and professor of Italian, conceived the idea of the symposium after writing "World's Fairs, Italian-Style: The Great Expositions in Turin and Their Narratives, 1880-1915." Published in 2007, the book was awarded the Modern Language Association of America's Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize in Italian Studies.
Countries sought to portray their power, technology and military strength. "One of the main goals of the host countries was to present their best, most innovative and stunning products," Della Coletta said. "They wanted to appear open to the world as international and cosmopolitan, and they projected the image of peace and bourgeois well-being."
But she said more was going on beneath the surface. "In many ways, host countries portrayed a clichéd presentation of the awesome; on the other hand, many issues, including women's issues, were discussed and brought forward," she said.
World's Fairs were fundamental venues for women and women's groups to disseminate a vision of themselves to an international audience, she said. These visions were as different as the exotic performances of the dancer who called herself Little Egypt – a performer at the 1893 fair in Chicago – and events sponsoring labor rights and women's suffrage.
The symposium will also examine the World's Fairs held in Barcelona in 1888 and 1929 and how they solidified the Catalan capital as an international presence even as the tiny province of Catalonia agitated for independence from Spain.
In addition, the symposium will study how the French used film at the 1937 World's Fair to brand the country in regional rather than geographical terms. Arts & Sciences associate professor of French and symposium participant Alison J. Murray Levine will discuss how the exhibit, extolling France's rural roots, stood in stark relief to the modernist displays chosen by other nations at the fair.
Friday's symposium is broken into morning and afternoon sessions, with a break from 12:30 to 2 p.m.
"The Center for International Studies provided a generous grant for me to travel to Italy and work in archives and museums in Turin, where I examined artifacts related to Turin 1911," Della Coletta said. "It also financially supported and sponsored the whole symposium."
Allen Lynch, director of research for the center, said he and the research advisory board were fascinated with Della Coletta's grant application.
"We were impressed by the multinational scope of the project and the time span of the project," he said. "The research was quite original and there was a good chance that there would be follow-up for publications, so it was certainly a project worth funding."
The center is soliciting proposals for University Seminars in International Studies and Faculty Travel Abroad in International Studies grants for the 2011-12 cycle. The application deadline is Oct. 7.