Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Displaying Brazil: National Expositions and the Forging of a "Modern" Nation, 1861-1922

Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Displaying Brazil: National Expositions and the Forging of a "Modern" Nation, 1861-1922

Article excerpt

In 1861, Brazil inaugurated its first national exposition, in the capital city of Rio de Janeiro. At the inauguration, held on the birthday of Emperor Dom Pedro II, a military band played a hymn entitled "Marcha da Industria" (March of Industry), composed specifically for the occasion. In the forty-two days the exposition was open, nearly one quarter of the city's population attended. Planners regarded the exposition as "a book written in characters that represent the useful and agreeable things of a country."(1) Heralded as a triumph for the nation, the exposition was, in short, a catalogue of Brazil's economic, social and cultural resources.

Influenced heavily by and modeled on the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, the 1861 National Exposition in Rio was the first of its kind in Latin America. It set the standard for similar expositions held subsequently in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America.(2) The 1861 exposition also established regulations for a network of local and provincial expositions. There was, in fact, an attempt to build a nationwide infrastructure of expositions.(3)

Planners announced proudly that Brazil had taken its first steps toward joining the universal trend of industrial and material progress enjoyed by the nations of Europe and North America. Official reports of the exposition even cited the "lack of any kind of ... conflict or infraction of rules that would have required the application of repressive measures readied for the occasion as prudence demanded" as a sign of the level of civilization that Brazil had already attained.(4)

National expositions, which catalogued and displayed an inventory of Brazil's products, people and culture, were held regularly throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. As spectacles closely linked to the promotion of a modernity associated with industrial and material progress, national expositions provide a focal point for understanding the tensions involved in the presentation of Brazil in a period of upheaval associated with the transition from slavery to free labor, the shift from imperial to republican rule, and growing involvement in the world economy.

Indicative of these shifts is the fact that Brazilian national expositions were also competitions to determine the exhibits to be sent to the world's fairs of 1862, 1867, 1873, 1876, 1889 and 1893, which were held in Europe and the United States. As such, national expositions were a testing ground for the presentation of Brazil not only for a national audience but for an international public as well. This dynamic underwent a further change in 1908, when Brazil began to host international expositions that were widely attended by foreign nations.(5)

Expositions are an ideal medium for studying the cultural and political tensions of this period because they both encapsulated shifting concerns about the nation's future and highlighted attempts at organizing solutions. As a platform for displaying and promoting utopian ideas of a "modern" Brazil, expositions provide an opportunity to understand the changing models of "progress" that Brazilians adopted in the context of dramatic cultural and political changes. They also reflect attempts by traditional elites to buttress their authority (as well as revealing intra-elite conflicts) in the face of these changes.

In spite of their importance to Brazilian cultural and economic life, Brazilian national expositions have received little attention either in the historiography of nineteenth- and twentieth-century universal expositions and world's fairs or in the historiography of Brazil. In the former, Latin Americans appear not so much as subjects of expositions, but as objects, crudely stereotyped to serve the neo-imperial interests of expansionary United States and Europe. Even the consistent Brazilian participation in universal expositions merits scant mention in the leading accounts of these phenomena. …

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