Fair Prehistory: Archaeological Exhibits at French Expositions Universelles

By Muller-Scheessel, Nils | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview
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Fair Prehistory: Archaeological Exhibits at French Expositions Universelles

Muller-Scheessel, Nils, Antiquity


International exhibitions(1) formed an important part of 19th-century social life. Every few years, they demonstrated what western civilization had achieved and gave it the opportunity to celebrate itself and its progress. They provided the means to make the general public aware of scientific and technological changes and ready to accept modernity. The biggest expositions drew audiences of a size barely surpassed even today. While all the exhibitions were concerned with progress and modernization, closer scrutiny shows that quite a few of them also presented objects from the past, even from prehistoric times. This apparent contradiction calls for an explanation; and given the important social role of international exhibitions, an examination of this paradox should reveal interesting aspects of that which was on show. This paper explores what international exhibitions can tell us about the foundations of prehistoric archaeology: how did the exhibitions help to shape the image of archaeology and conversely how did archaeological objects fit into the exhibitions' image of progress? What did the exhibitions contribute to the rise of archaeology?

The following survey is concerned with three of the five Expositions Universelles that took place in Paris in the 19th century, those of 1867, 1878 and 1889. Although there were other international exhibitions with archaeological exhibits (especially the `Weltausstellung' of 1873 in Vienna and the World's Fair of 1893 in Chicago), the French expositions are special insofar as they provide a slice through time every 11 years from 1855 to 1900. That means that they allow us to study the same topic under very similar conditions.

The French Expositions Universelles

Prehistoric archaeology made its first major appearance at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris where it played a prominent role in the exhibit Histoire du travail. Participating countries were informed that `works produced in different countries, from the most remote ages to the close of the 18th century, will be received, including objects of a rudimentary character made before the discovery of metals' (Le Play 1868: 122f. It was commonly understood that this exhibit would help to estimate the achievements of the present by comparison with the past (Falke 1868: 253).

The `History of Labour' was situated in the innermost gallery of the main elliptical building (FIGURE 1). Many countries (e.g. Great Britain, Switzerland, Russia) displayed prehistoric objects, but by far the most impressive was the French exhibit, which occupied nearly half the gallery. It comprised 10 sections placed in seven rooms. The first section was entitled `Gaul before the use of metals' and filled the first room. The second was dubbed `Independent Gaul', containing the objects of the metal ages and was placed, with the third section `Gaul under the Romans', in the second room. The remaining five rooms were filled with objects from the Middle Ages and early modern times. The objects in the first room were organized, as far as possible, along chronological lines (de Mortillet 1867: 182ff). The other pre- and protohistorical galleries of the French section, and many exhibits by other nations, focused on objects as pieces of art, rather than as artefacts of cultural-historical value.


While reactions to the History of Labour exhibit in general varied from disdain to approval, the response to the prehistoric sections was mostly enthusiastic (e.g. Gautier 1867: 162). Undoubtedly, for the emerging discipline of prehistoric archaeology its strong presence at the Exposition Universelle and the attention it received were a success. To G. de Mortillet, who was primarily responsible for organizing and displaying the French prehistoric material, the exposition clearly proved three essential laws with regard to humanity: the steady progress of humanity; the unilinear material and moral development of mankind; and the great antiquity of humanity (de Mortillet 1867: 368).

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