Mapping Empire in Omaha and Buffalo

By Moore, Sarah J. | Bilingual Review, January-April 2000 | Go to article overview

Mapping Empire in Omaha and Buffalo

Moore, Sarah J., Bilingual Review


When the United States' battleship Maine exploded under mysterious circumstances while anchored in Havana Harbor on the night of 15 February 1898, plans were already well underway for two world's fairs: the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, Omaha, and the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo. With the declaration of war with Spain in the spring of that year, organizers of the Omaha exposition feared it would be delayed or canceled. That the exposition opened, as scheduled, on 1 June 1898 prompted at least one observer to consider Omaha's achievement as nothing less than Admiral George Dewey's decisive victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. [1] Indeed, the presence of the Spanish-American War and its implications of colonialism were unmistakable at the Omaha exposition with respect to the fair's ideological assumptions, exhibitions, and official, as well as critical, discourse. In contrast to the Omaha exposition's aspiration to the status of an international world's fair based on the triumpha nt model of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the Pan-American Exposition was conceived as a Western Hemispheric world's fair whose concern was exclusively "the Americas." Originally scheduled to open in 1899 to "crown a century of progress that had witnessed the emergence of the Western Hemisphere as a leading and independent force in the world," [2] the Spanish-American War of 1898 caused plans for the opening of the fair to be postponed until 1901. [3] In addition to being historically contiguous, these two events, the Spanish-American War and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, had profound ideological resonances, each redefining American national identity within a colonial context. In fact, the physical and conceptual presence of empire that informed the Pan-American Exposition was directly proportional to the political and territorial conquests of the 1898 war. Carefully crafted as an elaborate allegory of the so-called New World's coming of age, the Pan-American Exposition revealed the heady confidence of the United States at the beginning of the new century with respect to advances in technology, industry, and science, and as a new imperial world power and a culture in the full flush of civilization. This paper addresses the Omaha and Buffalo expositions of 1898 and 1901, respectively, as cultural performances, suggesting the degree to which they collided with the realities and implications of the Spanish-American War while corroborating contemporary assumptions about national identity, progress, race, the frontier, and empire.

Perhaps nowhere is the cultural production of meaning and identity clearer than at the international expositions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Performing the role of great summarizers of culture, world's fairs molded the world into an "ideologically coherent symbolic universe, confirming and extending the authority of the [host] country's ... leadership." [4] As a structure of legitimization and producer of meaning, the world's fairs had a didactic mission while evoking an "imagined community" in which national and cultural profiles and boundaries were fixed. [5] As many contemporary scholars have noted, "almost without exception the major international exhibitions were sponsored by nations with colonial dependencies. Each displayed its colonies, or its internally colonized peoples, to its home population, to its rivals, and to the world at large." [6] The displays of colonial possessions in particular and of the expositions in general were informed by a kind of ideological mapping in which boundaries and identities became essentialized and authoritative so as to require no definition other than self-assertion. [7] The expositions in Omaha and Buffalo proved no exception to this rule, although their respective construction of empire differed decisively; the former articulated an internal colonial model in its emphasis on westward territorial expansion, whereas the latter defined empire within an international context.

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