Response to All the World is Here. Expositions, Exhibitions, and Cultural Interaction

On April 23, 2018, I attended "Asia at the World’s Fairs: Opening Symposium" organized by BU Center for the Study of Asia, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. For more information on this event, please go to http://www.bu.edu/asian/2018/04/15/exhibition-opening-asia-at-the-worlds-fairs/ 

At the beginning of the presentation, Professor Yeh introduced the mission of the worlds fair platform and this online exhibition – “to expand the space for debate on ideas.” According to her, the online presentation was just the starting point, and it represents a new type of platform for cultural discussion. 

The primary focus of the Worlds Fair platform is the discussion of the essential fairs that happened between 1851 to 1930s. She believed that those fairs are important avenues for world’s debate on Asian culture, mainly through how the Asian cultures were presented in those fairs and what were the cultures presented. I think this a great idea, especially since this project was done with collaboration between Art History, Political Science, and Anthropology departments. The audience can gain multiple perspectives on Asian cultures. According to Professor Yeh, “the impact of Asian art from the world fairs had not been studied – we want to understand how the world fairs became the space for communication and understanding of each other.”

            Following up on Professor Yeh’s opening speech, Professor Robert Murowick introduced World’s Fair exhibition, saying that they are the vehicles that brought in different cultures to the foreign country. According to him, those exhibitions were the opportunities to learn because it is composed to the “living museum,” as actual Chinese people were included as part of the exhibition – they were shown like monkeys on the stages. Now as scholars look back, those exhibitions also played a role of anthropology as “some of these early fairs incentivized the discussion of Chinese or Asian culture.” He introduced the fairs that would be subject to excavation by the project. In conclusion, Professor Murowick reinforced the purpose of the project – “[to create] an online exhibition that will showcase how Asia was presented to the public by Western nations and by Asian nations at World’s Fairs from the 1950s to mid-20th century.” 

            Lastly, Professor Tseng and Professor Yeh showcased a page of their research subjects and walked through the website with the audience. Professor Tseng’s research subject is called - Asian Architecture at the World’s Fairs. Through this, Professor Tseng wished to examine “how did the Japanese play along with and against the West-dominated situation.” According to her, in 1983 Chicago World’s Fair, Asian people were being showcased as animals. There was a vast distinction between the dominant host (Western countries) versus the subversive guest (Asian countries), which showed the inequality in displaying power. The exhibition was tangled with politics of exhibition and identity and Japan, different from all other Asian nations, had a different treatment in the Chicago World’s Fair. 

Japan is a compelling case because it was never colonized, but meanwhile, it acknowledged the dominant west place versus the non-west. They are willing to adopt the Western culture and economic models. In the exhibition, to show the indigenous Japanese culture, they brought in a modern Japanese architecture to showcase the soft power – the culture – to the western audience. According to Professor Tseng, “culture is a strong asset of entering these international benchmarks” and the grand architecture, and its nearby gardens are the most prominent way that Japan highlighted itself in the exhibition. To analyze “how did the Japanese play along with and against the West-dominated situation,” Professor Tseng chose to use the Chicago World Fair because she believed “the buildings and objects have to speak for themselves – textual evidence doesn’t transfer very well. Therefore, the architecture speaks for themselves the best.” For the Japanese government, which was trying to show that Japan should be considered different from but equal to the Western power nation, unlike textiles and ceramics, architecture is more tangible and grandiose so that the audience can be observed its cultural effect the most. 

The major questions that Professor Tseng was trying to resolve was “how this architecture (ho-den, phoenix hall) show the Japanese culture and how did the visitors read this architecture.” She concluded that this image is the most important because first, it’s the first building that was historically based that was perfectly replicated – a proper JP architecture; second, it was credited as the inspiration for architects in America. To present her research, her online exhibition was divided into three sections: before the fair; Japan at the show; and after the fair. Professor Tseng said that her intended audience was college students. I think this is an excellent space for college students to learn more about the modern World Fairs and how they showcase and affect the Asian culture. 

I think this order of speech is great since Professor Yeh showed her passion towards this project, which engaged the audience of the symposium and triggered our interest in the general theme. Then, Professor Murowick went into more details on each subject, which gave the audience more information about the subject matters. Lastly, Professor Tseng and Professor Yeh walked through their pages on different topics to show the audience how the website interacts and engages with the audience. This type of digital forum for sharing research and visual material is useful. However, I am not sure how is this space a discussion of the materials. As a forum, I think this website is missing interactive space for users to post ideas and discuss issues together. Apart from what’s shown in the symposium, I am looking forward to reading more about if any religious matters were brought up into the discussion in the modern World Fairs, for example, how Buddhism was received in the western world.

artJenny Maart