EXPO Milano 2015 vs. Chicago World’s Fair 1893

Map 1893 World's Columbian Exposition Rand, McNally &Co.

Map 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Rand, McNally &Co.

EXPO Milano 2015 was officially inaugurated this morning.

World fairs are something I never paid much attention too, until I came across  “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, in which the main subject is the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The planning and financing phases, building and scope are described in historical detail. The riveting account of the commercial, architectural and cultural energy of Chicago over a hundred years ago that made the fair possible surprised me, but is coherent with today’s swath of remarkable skyscrapers along its downtown area.

The Chicago World Fair was a great success and included engineering miracles such as the 80 m. high Ferris Wheel. It had an overall jumpstarting effect on cross-country  electricity markets, and also showed off new inventions such as the washing machine.

This successful “New World” Chicago “Columbian Exposition”, international before its time, with its 46 international pavilions , 27 million visitors, 200 buildings,has received little or no acknowledgment in Europe-centric culture and history books on this continent.

But you do find mention of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which took place 7 years later. Most Italians seem to know about it and are able to mention related details such as the launch of Art Nouveau. But it was actually a financial failure and closed its doors with a large amount of debt outstanding. Many small and medium-sized investors went into bankruptcy.

Living in Italy, media have bombarded us with a year-long, typically Italian mix of run-up news. Cost overruns, accusations of procurement corruption, unfinished construction among which the Italy pavilion, pre-launch with a La Scala opera performance…etc.

In this post-Eurocentric world, I wonder if other continents will take much notice of EXPO Milano 2015. How much global media attention will it attract? Or will the shrunken role of Europe at this time in history be reflected in the quantity and quality of the media attention it attracts …. just as the 1898 Chicago Fair went by unnoticed in Europe?

At the time Milan won the bid, the news was that it was going to be about “Food”, which logically led to all sorts of jokes about tourists coming to visit to finally get a good Italian meal. In fact, in its diminished global role, Italy’s a country best know around the world for its admittedly great cuisine represented everywhere with both top-scale restaurants or more modest (often bad) pizzerias. Fortunately, the EXPO slogan eventually morphed into “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, so the project’s mission is both timely and appropriate in this Climate Change and Un-Sustainability threatened planet. Remains to be seen if school, educational but also company training departments in Italy will take full advantage of this opportunity to initiate discussions and action on issues average citizens in Italy – both young and old – seem extraordinarily unaware of. Rather than send school excursions to visit museums and archeological sites, the next 6 months should ideally focus on everyone going to Milan.

After all, the museums and sites will still be there after EXPO Milano 2015 closes, but if no decisive actions follow in view of “Feeding the Planet” over the mid/long-term, the museums and archeology could soon be all that’s left.

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