A World’s Fair (commonly called World Exposition, or simply Expo) is large international festival of arts and sciences. Participating countries present artistic and educational displays in national pavilions to showcase world issues or their country’s culture and history. Such is the scale of these events that they are sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) in order to control expense and to avoid any clashes with other expositions and large international events, such as the Olympics.
The origins of world’s fairs lay in a French tradition of national exhibitions, and the success of the French Industrial Exposition in 1844 lead to the adoption of such events by neighbouring European countries. The idea made its way to the United Kingdom, which held the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”, better known as simply “The Great Exhibition”, in 1851. This event set down the precedent in terms of scale and content, which expanded beyond a single topic and included exhibits on wider aspects of society, including art-and-design education, international trade and relations, and tourism. This format was later copied by several other cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Paris, who held numerous world’s fairs.
The rising popularity of the world’s fair concept brought conflicts of schedule and interest. In 1928, a convention to schedule regular World’s Fairs was created, and the BIE was created to coordinate World’s Fair organization. Soon after, the themes that typified world’s fairs began to change. An international exhibition in New York in 1939-40 began a shift from the unveiling and showcasing of new technologies and practices to exhibits relating to human and cultural experiences. This paradigm continued after the Second World War, and term ‘Expo’ for world’s fairs was coined in 1967 at Montréal’s International and Universal Exposition, or Expo 1967.
Eventually, the idea that world’s fairs were a great vehicle to advertise countries became prominent, and the pavilions began to carry greater cultural and historical references to the countries that displayed them. Today, world’s fairs contain not only nation branding, but throwbacks to the old paradigms of world’s fairs, showcasing both new and innovative technologies and reflections on the prevailing human condition and experience.
There are three types of world’s fair as set out by the BIE:
- Universal Expositions (World Expositions) are the largest expositions and are considered the ‘major’ fairs. These events take place every five years and last anywhere between three weeks and three months. They are the most expensive and often most extravagant type of fair, as large international participation requires enough area for each country to promote their national brand. Participants are required to build their own pavilions. This means no expense is spared, often resulting in some spectacular exhibits. Themes are usually universal to the human experience. All events of a suitable scale prior to 1928 were retrospectively made Universal Expositions. The next event will be in 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
- International Expositions (Specialized Expositions) are the smaller than Universal Expositions, and are considered the ‘minor’ fairs. These events tend to encompass much narrower or specialised themes. There is no set frequency to these events, although only one may be held in the five-year gap between the larger Universal Exhibitions.
- International Horticultural Expositions are specialised events which showcase floral displays, botanical gardens and anything else to do with plants. Although in theory they can take place annually (so long as they are in different countries), in practice they are not. These events normally last anywhere between three and six months, and are held on sites no smaller than 50 hectares. They are jointly sanctioned by the BIE and the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH). The next event will be held in 2019 in Beijing, China.
Additionally, the BIE also recognizes the Milan Triennial Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Architecture (also Triennale di Milano, Milan Triennale, or Triennale di Milano International Exhibition) for historical reasons, provided that it retains its original features. The Triennale showcases modern decorative and industrial arts. The most recent Triennale was in 2016.