I travelled to Shanghai really excited with the idea that for the first time I was going to visit a World’s Fair. The Exposition Universelle… The name itself has something magical to it. It did remind me when I went to the Olympics for the first time in Athens, back in 2004. Both names carry similar grand values. Unfortunately I left Shanghai thinking I went to a fair. But not the World’s Fair.
Started in the 19the century, World Fairs were the platform where science and technology from around the world were brought together. Inventions such as the telephone were first presented during this era. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was built for that purpose as well. An important part of the image of the World’s Fairs stems from this first era. The World of Tomorrow was being built or unveiled during these fairs. Every single of these events have been a milestone one way or another.
Back in 1954 the official New York World’s Fair pamphlet said: “The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow. (…) To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way.”
From Expo ’88 in Brisbane onwards, countries started to use World Expositions more widely and more strongly as a platform to improve their national images through their pavilions. In a world where a strong national image is a key asset, pavilions became advertising campaigns, and the Expo a vehicle for ‘nation branding’.
The Shanghai Expo 2010 is unfortunately not about the world meeting the world on a common stage to create new milestones. While countries were expected to bring the quintessence of their technology, their cultures, their arts, their vision for the future and how they were going to contribute to that future, all encapsulated inside a “pavilion”, the Shanghai Expo is only 154 countries invited on a show in mainland China. It is about countries showcasing their national image, their savoir-faire, their touristic destinations and national commercial brands, in mainland China. I am not going to enumerate what pavilions I have visited and what I have seen, but one after the other it was only surprises and disappointments. Most of the countries have simply not been up to their status, limiting the display at some flat screens, movies and, shameful, showcases of their main industries and national brands, glorious sponsors of an event that has lost its magic. The trophy of the most ludicrous pavilion going to Venezuela for which I have yet to understand the actual purpose of it.
There is no doubt that joining such event is an expensive exercise, but, when the Expo has the ambition to display the best of countries’ culture and innovations, isn’t it a duty to invest what it takes? The USA pavilions is by far one of the weakest pavilions among the most developed countries which joined. I was reading that the participation of the USA was only confirmed 10 months before the opening (note: USA Pavilion CEO and President has resigned one month after the opening). It is like everything, either you do it and you do it well, or you stay home. There are too many values and too much history associated to the World Fairs to simply come unprepared.
Shanghai Expo is reportedly the most expensive Expo ever organised. I am guessing that this is taking into account what it took for Shanghai to bring the city’s infrastructures up to standards (or built for the occasion), but not the investments made by the countries to build the most inspiring pavilions possible. What happened to the magic?
Fabrice Burtin – June 2010