What Is an Expo Anyway? What Do I Do at One?

What Is an Expo Anyway? What Do I Do at One?

by Urso Chappell


     I’m sometimes asked to speak to classes or other groups about world’s fairs. The first few times I did this, I’d get through my talk (that I’d worry was overly comprehensive and detailed) only to be confronted with questions from folks, especially younger students, about what a world’s fair actually is. What do you do at one? After all, when an Olympics happens, we all know what to do, assuming the Olympics aren’t in our own town – television coverage guides the experience.

     Unfortunately, in North America, where I live, we haven’t had an expo since 1986. So, younger people are typically unfamiliar with what a world’s fair is. This will also be somewhat true in Korea since it will have been 19 years since Taejon’s Expo ’93.


What Exactly Is an Expo?

     Every expo is different. Each event is shaped by different factors: its location, its theme, the era in which it’s created, and the collective imaginations of the clever folks who put it all together. As a medium, it is all its own, yet shares a lot of traits with other media.

     In some ways, a world’s fair is like a theme park. It’s typically a large area with dozens (or hundreds) of different experiences, many with queue lines in front. Unlike a theme park, there’s a bit more gravitas to a world’s fair and less out-and-out thrills. Navigation between both of these experiences is a park-like setting with other opportunities for amusement such as live performances and elaborately designed environments. As with most theme parks, as you roam the site, different areas might have different themes or “feels” to them.

     In some ways, an expo is like a huge collection of museums in a park. But, unlike most museums, world’s fair pavilions are temporary, have a more specific story to tell, and rely on less traditional ways to tell that story. While might have static exhibits featuring physical objects, they’re also likely to feature multimedia presentations, experimental architecture and design, and due to their temporary nature, the most up-to-date technology. There’s also the opportunity to interact with people from cultures unlike your own, but I’ll say more about that later.

     There’s another connection between pavilions and museums I should mention: world’s fair pavilions often offer the opportunity for you to part with your cash – either through food or souvenirs. As they say: Be sure to make folks exit through the gift shop!

     World’s fairs also share a kinship with music, film, and other festivals. Throughout most expos, there’s a wide variety of entertainment options – some of a type rarely seen outside the medium of world’s fairs. Closing ceremonies and opening ceremonies in particular are opportunities for grand performances. It can be quite a feather in one’s cap to be able to say they had once performed at an expo.

     Not surprisingly, expos are related to Olympics in ways that probably won’t surprise most readers. They’re both large events of an international scale. However, there’s a bit of a difference. You don’t have to be among the world’s elite to participate fully in a world’s fair. Whereas, in the Olympics, one nation plays hosts to guests around the world, at an expo, the nations of the world play host to guests primarily from one nation or region.

     You could also say that an international exposition is one big collective artistic and technological project. It brings together the creative juices of artists, designers, architects, planners, marketers, musicians, actors, etc. – both domestically and internationally. To me, their power to inspire is even more powerful than their power to inform.


Congratulations! You Speak English!

     Being an English speaker can, at first, seem to be a disadvantage when going to a world’s fair in a country whose primary language is something else. After all, some of the exhibits, particularly ones created by local governments, may only be in that language.

     However, the vast majority of exhibits created by foreign countries will likely feature multiple languages… or no spoken language at all. Some rely on the language of visuals, sounds, or even smell. One of the fun challenges for an expo pavilion designer is creating a space that can communicate to a wide variety of visitors who often speak several (if not many) different languages.

     If you’re reading this, you likely speak English. That means you have an extra way to enjoy many pavilions. The pavilions of other nations are often staffed with people from those countries that, naturally, speak the language of their homelands. It’s also not unusual for those same staff members to speak English as their second language better than the language of the expo’s host nation. There have been many times that I’ve been become engaged in conversation with pavilion staff after they’ve overheard me speaking English – even though they’re from non-English speaking countries like Singapore, Peru, or Austria.


The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

     An exposition is a vast collection of pavilions and other experiences, each one with its own components, but like many human endeavors, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Interesting relationships can develop between the messages of different pavilions. Previously unseen connections between cultures can emerge. Even contradictory philosophies related to the expo’s theme can help you get a sense of the complexity (or ambiguity) inherent in those topics.

     For example, when Zaragoza, Spain tackled the topic of water at Expo 2008, pavilions would use water as a decorative feature while others might talk about the conservation of fresh water. Even countries that focused on environmental concerns would approach it from different perspectives.


Create Your Own Unique Experience

     Having attended eight world’s fairs (so far!) in nearly 30 years, I’ve had some great, unique experiences.

     At Lisbon, Portugal’s Expo ’98, I’d arrived the first week of the event and all of the pavilions were open except El Salvador’s, which was still an empty shell. After asking a host if the pavilion would be ready before the end of my trip, he took me on a tour of the empty building, excitedly describing me what they had planned. It turned out to be perhaps more memorable than if the pavilion had been finished.

     At that same expo, a Philippines Pavilion host overheard me speaking English and asked where I was from. When I told her I was visiting from San Francisco, we had a great conversation about how she always dreamed of visiting… Daly City. For many people, it would be surprising that the seemingly nondescript San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Daly City would be considered a greater attraction than San Francisco itself, but for Filipinos, Daly City is a little bit of the Philippines in the Bay Area. Suddenly, the Philippines seemed far less foreign to me.

     At Hanover, Germany’s Expo 2000, I casually mentioned to a staff member of the Republic of Georgia Pavilion that I was also originally from Georgia, but not the country, but the state of Georgia in the United States. It turned out that many of the staff there had spent time in my hometown of Atlanta as part of its famous sister city program with Tblisi, the “other capital of Georgia.”

     These three experiences, to me, are pure world’s fair experiences even though they were completely unplanned and spontaneous. To me, they really speak to the power of expos.


How to Best Enjoy Expo 2012

     Readers of this blog are, not surprisingly, most interested in how these guidelines relate to Yeosu’s Expo 2012 specifically. Well, like everyone right now, I’ve never been. Until May 12th, no one has. That’s part of the fun. Even pavilion designers don’t know what’s in store in the other pavilions. Think of visiting Expo 2012 like a huge birthday party. Each pavilion is like opening a present.

     With over 100 nations participating along with various local, corporate, and international organizations present, there will likely be some unexpected gems in there, some even the organizers don’t even know about yet!