Published: 8 August 2014

Becoming an expert: Emily Trafford on world’s fairs

The amusement strip at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattl

Third year PhD student, Emily Trafford is leading a project examining the formation of racial hierarchies on the west coast of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.

“My research focuses on world’s fairs, which were huge events held on specially constructed sites that celebrated the nation’s progress and modernity.

(Pictured left: The amusement strip at the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle).

World’s fairs – also known as international expositions – were held throughout Europe, the US and elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beginning with the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851.

These events showcased new technological advances, art, and industry from various participating nations, and attracted millions of visitors during their run.

Starting at the 1867 Universal Exposition in Paris, live displays of the world’s people were included, often as costumed servers at restaurants and shops, or in supposedly authentic ‘native villages’ on a strip dedicated to amusements. At a time when travel was limited, the fairs gave visitors the opportunity to see the whole world in a day, and to compare and observe various populations.

Emily Trafford

(Pictured left : PhD student Emily Trafford)

Yet these spectacular displays often exploited the performers, and promoted narratives of racial difference and inferiority.

I am interested in the significance of these live displays in shaping visitors’ perceptions of race, and how they impacted upon understandings of the regional and national racial hierarchy. Several populations that were of particular importance to west coast societies were displayed at fairs in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and San Diego between 1894 and 1916.

Native American tribes that had been displaced by white settlers were displayed in war regalia and described as a ‘dying race’. Chinese and Japanese peoples – who had established immigrant communities in west coast cities – occupied native villages that emphasised their unfamiliar religious practices and visible difference to white Americans. Subjects from the United States’ burgeoning empire – including Hawaiians, Samoans, and Filipinos – were portrayed as weak and in need of American civilisation.

Using fair guidebooks, photographs, newspapers, postcards, and organisational sources, my thesis approaches the live display from three angles.

It first examines the fair visitors and the regional racial anxieties that made such displays popular, whilst using the small number of visitor-authored sources to analyse how they interpreted the displays. It then focuses on the form and function of the live displays, comparing the narratives and stereotypes used in each to see how various racial identities were constructed, and how popular and official narratives about race were visualised.

Birdseye view of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco

(Pictured left: Birdseye view of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco)

My analysis then shifts to the displayed individuals themselves, as I attempt to locate their experience and their role in shaping the display narrative.

My research aims to bring together studies of indigenous, immigrant, and imperial peoples, and offers a broad examination of how racial identities and hierarchies were configured on the US west coast. I have been fortunate enough to spend several months conducting primary research in the US, most recently at the Library of Congress as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s International Placement Scheme.

My research has relevance to contemporary Western representations of non-white peoples, such as the ‘dying race’ narrative that accompanied recent news reports of an Amazon tribe making contact for the first time, and with the trend of young Westerners engaging in ‘volunteer tourism’ in developing nations.

World’s fairs continue to be held, although low cost travel and the internet have refashioned their aims and content. The next exposition will be held in Milan in 2015, with the theme ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’.”

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