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How 1930s America Glimpsed the Future

National Building Museum Visits the World’s Fairs

In the 1930s, Americans didn’t need to go to amusement parks teeming with roller coasters and Disney characters. They had their own alternate reality — or maybe just a glimpse into the future — at the world’s fair.

World’s fairs are a legacy from a time when far-away societies weren’t so interconnected. But in the pre-war period, they were massive events that attracted millions of people, invigorated major cities and gave businesses a chance to show off their most advanced designs to an awestruck public. The National Building Museum’s newest exhibit, “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s,” hopes to do the same.

The exhibit features images and memorabilia from world’s fairs held from 1933 to 1939 in Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, San Francisco and New York. Co-curator Laura Schiavo said this was a challenging project to put together because of its scope — “Designing Tomorrow” includes nearly 600 photographs and 200 artifacts from past fairs. And its emphasis on industrial design and construction make it a natural fit at the National Building Museum.

“The New York fair brochure called the architects, engineers and designers ‘the true poets of the 20th century,’” Schiavo said. “This is really a show about what those true poets of the 20th century did at the world’s fairs, and it’s all situated in the midst of the Great Depression.”

Those poets did a lot of work in the 1930s, and “Designing Tomorrow” attempts to capture much of it through seven themed displays; the result is a collection that is “gigantic, both in square footage and in concept,” Schiavo said. The materials on display are unquestionably cool artifacts, posters, images and short films, but it’s a little difficult to stay on track and comprehend it all, and the exhibit’s maze-like layout adds another layer of complexity.

Those issues aren’t necessarily negatives — the exhibit is designed so that viewers can get a taste of whatever interests them, whether it is transportation, construction, chemistry or technology, and the layout reflects a quote from a famed world’s fair designer.

“People must flow in an exhibit,” architect Walter Dorwin Teague said in 1937. “Audiences follow the line of least resistance just as water does, and it is much easier to take them around a slow curve than to make them turn an abrupt corner.”

One obvious theme in every section of the exhibit is the important role corporations played in putting on world’s fairs. General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Shell and Westinghouse Electric Corp. are just a few of the companies with a major presence at the fairs, and some relics from the 1930s, such as a giant Ford pavilion that was moved to Michigan, can still be seen today.

At the time — before television had really taken off — world’s fairs, like amusement parks today, represented great advertising terrain.

“The biggest players were corporations, and the audience was really imagined as the consumer,” Schiavo said. “This is a moment where corporations are really revving up public relations — they are creating public relations, and it’s necessary during the Depression when they have to really resell the notion of capitalism.”

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