Fair Prehistory: Archaeological Exhibits at French Expositions Universelles

By Muller-Scheessel, Nils | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Fair Prehistory: Archaeological Exhibits at French Expositions Universelles


Muller-Scheessel, Nils, Antiquity


Introduction

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Fair Prehistory: Archaeological Exhibits at French Expositions Universelles
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?