Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Medievalism and Orientalism at the World's Fairs

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Medievalism and Orientalism at the World's Fairs

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

From the middle of the nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, the great European powers mounted enormous international exhibitions, displaying both their technological and economic power and their newly acquired colonial possessions. Curiously, amid the pavilions and exhibition halls were reconstructions of their own medieval past. What was the significance of these medieval installations, which present the Middle Ages as both domestic and foreign, as native and native? This paper traces this dual interpretation of the Middle Ages from World's Fairs to Victorian Anthropology and then further back to the strangely intertwined histories of medievalism and orientalism in architecture, linguistics and literature.

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Over the past two decades an enormous scholarly literature has developed on what would have seemed an unlikely subject, that of world's fairs and international exhibitions, especially in the nineteenth century (Aliwood 1977; Friebe 1985; Greenhalgh 1988; Rydell 1984). A new interest in the symbolic and theatrical aspects of social history and of simulated environments, reflecting the state of our own cultural moment, has vitalized this previously understudied aspect of how the nineteenth century viewed itself During the same two decades, literary and intellectual historians have turned their attention to another aspect of the same time period -- its obsession with the Middle Ages (Biddick 1998; Bloch and Nichols 1996; Chandler 1970; Dakyns 1973; Dinshaw 1999; Eco 1986; Ellis 2000; Emery 2001; Frantzen 1990; Mathews 1999; Trigg 2002; Studies in Medievalism). This new scholarly concern with medievalism also has a contemporary source, as the Middle Ages increasingly is pictured in both popular culture and academ ic discourse as an absolute historical opposite, as the last premodern moment in Western Civilization. Yet surprisingly these two distinct turns in recent scholarship turn out to have a link. As it turns out, world's fairs in the nineteenth century not only celebrated the triumph of European modernity, they also displayed aspects of Europe's own medieval past. From the Great Exhibition of 1851 onward, medieval reconstructions were among the most popular exhibits at world's fairs, and often the most difficult to assimilate to the fairs' modernizing agenda. A nearly complete collection of the official records of most of these fairs is available from the Smithsonian Institute on microfilm, and most of the descriptions that follow are based on materials from these reels (Rydell 1992). For most of us today, for instance, the idea of the relation of these world's fairs to the Middle Ages is learned from Henry Adams, who in The autobiography of Henry Adams extols the futurist power of the great hail of turbines, and contrasts these dynamos to the accepting grace of the cathedral, as developed in his dichotomy of "The Virgin and the Dynamo" (Adams 1931). Yet one would not suspect from reading Adams' Autobiography or his essays or his letters that it would have been possible for him to visit two medieval recreations at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, "Le Vieux Paris" and "Paris 1500" each with extensive reconstructions of buildings, costumed inhabitants and educational literature (Mandell 1967).

My purpose here is to describe some of these examples of medieval installations at world's fairs, but also to uncover some hidden patterns and meanings in their display. Throughout the nineteenth century, we shall see, medieval installations played a complicated and unexpected part in world's fair planning. From the very first, however, the place of medieval exhibitions at world's fairs was unstable and contradictory. For as the nineteenth century progressed, these international exhibitions, which were being mounted as often as every five years on average, not only celebrated industrial wealth and technique, they also celebrated the growth of empire, the imperial triumph of the West over the East and Africa. …

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