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Designing the Centennial

Designing the Centennial: A History of the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia

Bruno Giberti
Series: Material Worlds
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Designing the Centennial
    Book Description:

    The 1876 United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was not only the United States' first important world's fair, it signaled significant changes in the very shape of knowledge. Quarrels between participants in the exhibition represented a greater conflict as the world transitioned between two different kinds of modernity--the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the High Modern period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the center of this movement was a shift in the perceived relationship between seeing and knowing and in the perception of what makes an object valuable--its usefulness as a subject of study and learning versus its ability to be bought and sold on the market. Arguments over design of the Centennial reflected these opposing viewpoints. Initial plans were rigidly structured, dividing the exhibits by country and type. But as some exhibitors became more interested in the preferences of their audience, they adopted a more modern stance. Objects traditionally displayed in isolated glass boxes were placed in fictive context -- the necklace draped over a mannequin, the vase set on a table in a model room. As a result, the audience could more easily perceive these items as commodities suitable for their own environments and the fair as a place to find ideas for a material lifestyle.Designing the Centennialis a vital first look at the design process and the nature of the display. Bruno Giberti uses official reports of the U.S. Centennial Commission and photographs of the Centennial Photographic Company, as well as the ephemera of the exhibition and literary accounts in books, magazines, and newspapers to illuminate how the 1876 fair revealed changes to come: in future world's fairs, museums, department stores, and in the nature of display itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5016-1
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 The Order of the Exhibition
    (pp. 1-32)

    From the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, the first step in the design of any international exhibition was to classify the goods that would be on display. This was a formative act that influenced every other aspect of the exhibition’s design—the organization of the catalogue, the plan of the site and buildings, the arrangement of displays, and the comparison of goods.

    One could argue that this classificatory imperative was neither new nor unique. The international exhibition was a vast collection of things, and every collection, whatever its size, implies some form of order....

  5. 2 The Architecture of the Exhibition
    (pp. 33-74)

    The distinction between architecture and engineering as separate fields of expertise is a well-established one that originates in the Renaissance division between civil and military practice. In modern terms, the distinction has its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the establishment in France of state-sponsored schools and academies. In Great Britain, the development of such boundaries did not occur until the eighteenth century; in the United States, it happened later, in the critical period immediately following the Civil War.¹ Even then the distinction between architecture and engineering as different kinds of building was already well established and is...

  6. 3 The Installation in the Main Building
    (pp. 75-104)

    Surprisingly, the first real site plan of the Centennial Exhibition was not prepared until October 1873, some time after the finalists had submitted their revised designs in the second stage of the competition. Henry Pettit was the author of this plan, which he presented to the Executive Committee on November 6, in the form of a still-extant, six-foot-long drawing (fig. 3-1). At that time, the Committee on Plans and Architecture was still proposing a hybrid scheme for the Main Building, combining Vaux and Radford’s vaulted pavilions with the Sims’ simple sheds. Pettit placed a version of this scheme parallel to...

  7. 4 Ways of Seeing the Exhibition
    (pp. 105-153)

    With the completion of the installation, visitors standing in the nave of the Main Building could perceive the Centennial Exhibition as a great, ordered spectacle, which opened up a vast, interior landscape. The sections lining both sides of the nave formed a street of nations running the eighteen-hundred-foot length of the building (fig. 4-1). The balance between chauvinism and empiricism that had been the aim of the dual system was decisively overturned, and the exhibition was laid open as a site of competitive display between nations—a potlatch of global dimensions, signifying an orgy of mass consumption.¹

    It is hard...

  8. 5 The American System of Awards
    (pp. 154-174)

    In retrospect, it is always the physicality of the exhibition that speaks to us most strongly, through drawings, photographs, and, in some cases, extant structures. We should not forget, however, that the principle function of the exhibition was the systematic evaluation of goods. As theJournal of the Franklin Institutereminded its readers shortly after the closing of the Centennial, “Throughout those miles of passages every object on display was there, not alone for admiration, but for comparison, for selection.”¹ In other words, the exhibition was more than a collection of things; it was a vast apparatus of distinction, a...

  9. 6 The Exhibitionary Complex in Philadelphia
    (pp. 175-226)

    In trying to explain the complex character of the exhibition, period observers like Patrick Geddes resorted to a variety of institutional analogies. InIndustrial Exhibitions and Modem Progress(1887), the Scottish biologist and sociologist wrote that an upcoming Glasgow fair could take shape “as an extended shop-window, music saloon, and refreshment bar of unparalleled lustre and magnificence.” Alternatively, the fair could develop “as a true museum, somewhat less partial and confused, of real material and social progress in the immediate past, and a school, somewhat more effective and inspiring, of these in the immediate future.” Competitive display must be a...

  10. Appendix: Enlarged Plates
    (pp. 227-244)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 245-270)
  12. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 271-286)
  13. Index
    (pp. 287-304)