Illustration by Sayazhan Sagynay

A History of Expo: Modern Science, Technology and Nation Branding

Throughout history, Expos have been used by countries to boost their own self-image through displays of modern science and technologies. They are peculiar events in history, going beyond just the aim of cultural exchange.

Nov 13, 2021

When the last Expo was held in Astana in 2017, it was met with heavy criticism from domestic and foreign observers. One problem with Astana’s Expo was the unmet expectations: the general population had come to associate the fair with new, life-changing technology and architectural masterpieces, but instead all we got was Nicolas Cage in shapan. Many people called Expo 2017 a “splashy attempt to change the [country’s] image”. In fact, promotion of a country’s image can be considered the primary goal of Expos all around.
Fairs like Expo are peculiar events in global history. As soon as the Industrial Revolution took place, industrializing economies felt an urge to showcase and embrace the socioeconomic shift, while emphasizing the leading role of particular countries in this change. Expos were a platform for presenting state-of-the-art science and technology from around the world. Inventions such as the X-Ray machine, the commercial broadcast television, the telephone and even the ice cream cone itself were first showcased during world’s fairs.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 started what has been called the “Era of Industrialization” chapter of the World’s Fair, which spanned roughly from 1800 to 1938, a period in which world expositions focused largely on trade and technological advancements. This era, defined by the modernist tone, in particular by the Eiffel Tower, set the basic character of the world’s fair.
Interestingly, these inventions and the tone of Expo are still used to advertise the event — as mentioned, that was the case with the very last Expo in Kazakhstan and is the case in this year’s Expo in Dubai. However, it must be noted that such exhibitions are long gone, and we probably won’t witness the construction of another Eiffel Tower or life-changing inventions like ice cream cones during Expos, because the fair has gone through a lot of change in the last decade.
In the New York World's Fair of 1939–40, and those that followed, more attention was paid to cultural themes and social progress than to technology. Consider, for instance, the shift from the 1939 Fair "Building the World of Tomorrow" and the 1964–65 New York World's Fair "Peace Through Understanding". As early as Brisbane’s Expo in 1988, countries began to use Expositions to enhance their national image through their pavilions. A study by Tjaco Walvis entitled "Expo 2000 Hanover in Numbers", suggests that 73% of the countries participating in Expo 2000 sought improvement of their national image. In a sense, the pavilions served as an advertisement, and the fair served as a vehicle for nation branding.
But it is not uncommon to have Expos serving an agenda beyond cultural exchange. Consider the example of the “Sokolniki” exhibition, where the “Kitchen Debate” took place. To promote mutual understanding, the Soviets and Americans decided to hold exhibitions in each other's countries in 1959. The Soviet display in New York City debuted in June 1959, and then Vice President Richard Nixon was to launch the U.S. exhibition in Moscow the following month. Nixon gave a tour of the exhibit to Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, but already during their first encounter in the Kremlin, Khrushchev stunned Nixon by dismissing the U.S.'s new technology. He declared that the Soviets will have all of the same things in a few years and will say "bye-bye" when they overtake the U.S. "Don't you have a machine that feeds food into the mouth and pushes it down?" joked Khrushchev, referring to Charlie Chaplin's 1936 comedy Modern Times. Nevertheless, the politicians came to an agreement that both sides should seek common ground in their relationship. However, after the debate, The New York Times criticized the meeting, calling it a “political stunt”. One might wonder about the applicability of such a title to all other international events. As you might have noticed, world’s fairs were quite epic and important, either because of how scandalous they were or due to their innovation. But beyond the politicking of Expo, let us remind ourselves of its beauty as expressed in Carl Sagan’s nostalgia over the 1939 World’s Fair in New York: “Plainly, the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed...”.
Adi Baurzhanuly is a staff writer. Email him at
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