The walnut shell lays open, an accordion of cream-colored paper circles cascading from the center, revealing tiny photographs. It is a World’s Fair in a nutshell, 44 miniature images of buildings at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis.
The elaborate souvenir is one of more than 100 objects, researched and chosen by 13 Penn students and loaned from 14 institutions to tell the story of World’s Fairs, an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking for a history of art curatorial course.
The collection--novelties, fine art, ceramics, textiles, photographs, books, cards, stamps, coins, games, music, film, furniture--is now on display at the Arthur Ross Gallery. “The World on View: Objects from Universal Expositions, 1851-1915” runs through July 29.
The students also worked as a group to produce a comprehensive catalog, 20 chapters in 176 pages. Each wrote an in-depth scholarly essay on their discoveries for the course and then adapted them for the catalog and the exhibition wall descriptions.
“To distill something as irreducibly large as the world into objects, some as small as a walnut, is of course no small task,” said André Dombrowski, associate professor of history of art, to more than 200 people gathered at the April exhibit opening.
The eight-month effort started in September on the first day of Dombrowski’s curatorial seminar, Art History 501. All but two students were Ph.D. and master’s candidates in art history, except for a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature and a senior English major.
“I had been thinking for some time about teaching a course on World’s Fairs,” Dombrowski says. “It was a good opportunity to teach a class that demonstrated an interest in the material and visual culture of 19th-century globalization.”
Through in-depth readings, the students examined two important challenges undertaken by the international expositions, innovation and globalization, and their inevitable cultural and commercial intertwining. “The World’s Fairs were spaces where that was put to the test,” says Dombrowski.
To tackle creating the Arthur Ross Gallery exhibition, each student chose one or two themes to research. Each then chose institutions on Penn’s campus and in Philadelphia to explore their World’s Fair collections, reporting back on their discoveries to the group.
The class went together to examine objects and documents in the Penn Museum Archives and to the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts.
“The students took my ideas in directions I never imagined and were immensely creative in accomplishing their tasks,” Dombrowski says. “What is so special is that it was such a collaborative enterprise.”
Ramey Mize, a second-year Ph.D. student, said the collaboration was a bonding experience for the students. “When you have to realize something concrete together you really get to know each other much more quickly and develop meaningful relationships,” she says.
The exhibition spans the time period from the 1851 Great Exposition in London to the Panama-Pacific exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. The fairs most represented include the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle and the 1904 fair in St. Louis.
“It is not at all meant to be a representative show or chronical history,” Dombrowski says. “We are highlighting episodes.”
From among many available choices, the group narrowed it down to about 100 objects to best illustrate their chosen themes.
“I think it looks really beautiful. It’s such a variety of objects. It’s wonderful to see the way things stand together,” says Ph.D. student Erin Wrightson.
Arthur Ross Gallery associate curator Heather Gibson Moqtaderi was an integral part of the class to connect the students with 14 institutions to request the objects and negotiate the loans.
Through the objects, the 13 student-curators address technology, innovation, international exchange, colonialism, and cultures of the world.
“I think one unified feature of the exhibition is the students not shying away from difficult issues such as cultures on display at the fairs,” Moqtaderi says.
- Manchester textiles made for the Senegalese market represent African nations and commerce but also the general image of Africans at the fairs, interpreted by master’s student Jessica Hough.
- Technological innovation as displayed in a retractable silver pencil with a duck design from 1860 and two early electric water kettles from around 1910, chosen by master’s student Olivia Dudnik.
- Intricately woven baskets by the Chitimacha tribe in 1904, some of the many Indigenous crafts marketed to the general public, are the centerpiece of objects highlighting the experiences of Native Americans, researched by Ph.D. student Ramey Mize.
- Two striking fine art pieces included are a Paul Gauguin oil portrait of a Breton boy and a striking sculpture of a Breton peasant woman by William Sargeant Kendall, chosen by master’s student Emma Lasry.
- A Japanese cloisonné metalware vase, standing 6 feet high, and other ceramic and metal items that reflect changing tastes in East Asian decorative arts were assembled by Ph.D. students Z. Serena Qiu and Naoko Adachi.
- International board games at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in the Penn Museum’s collection were a focus for Ph.D. student Erin Wrightson. A Milton-Bradley mancala game from 1891 is displayed next to a wooden African mancala game from the same period.
- The then-innovative concept of kindergarten and its introduction at the 1876 Exposition in Philadelphia was researched by senior Nicholas Escobar, who also created a display of music at fairs, available through an interactive kiosk.
- Projected on the back wall of the exhibit are film clips, a first for the gallery, of dancers from the late 1800s, chosen by Ph.D. student Isabelle Lynch.
- A soda fountain from 1876 is in a case dedicated to refreshment at the fairs. Philadelphia’s Franklin Fountain created a new ice cream flavor, Fairy Floss, to honor the exhibition.
- Other objects featured include German art nouveau pewter items referencing Germany’s colonial holdings in Africa were chosen by Ph.D. student Anna Linehan; objects and photographs that looked at how the fairs treated the theme of “nature” were chosen by Bryan Norton; books and stamps made for particular audiences at the fairs were chosen by Francesca Richman; and other memorabilia relating the fairs’ conception of “history” were chosen by Nicholas Rogers.
“I think the curatorial seminars are invaluable opportunities for professional development for grad students,” says Mize, who was on the catalog committee. “It really helps you understand the tasks that are required to mount a museum exhibition.”
Acquiring all those objects from so many institutions in the given timeline was an unusual challenge, Moqtaderi says. The gallery has mounted eight curatorial exhibitions in the past 10 years, and this was the most complex.
“I wanted to make sure everyone’s voice was heard and represent the interests of the entire class,” she says. “My goal was to make their design a reality.”
Another seven are in Philadelphia: the African-American Museum, Fairmount Park Historic Archives, Franklin Fountain, Free Library of Philadelphia, Library Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“We hope it has a sense of order, but also a sense of the strange conglomerations of stuff at World’s Fairs,” Dombrowski says. “Both orderly and disorderly, very curated but also the air of a storage unit, all wrapped up into one.”