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World's Fairs, Expositions, & Centennial Celebrations of the Victorian Era

Farm House Museum
February – October 2024

Between 1851 and 1910, there were 13 major World’s Fairs or Expositions. Fairs and Expositions were wildly popular attractions and extremely costly to create. Though the first major fairs were in Europe, the trend quickly moved to the U.S. Through exhibitions, architecture, and access to “far away” cultures, these European and U.S. events became epicenters for the exchange of knowledge, a show of nationalism, and unique innovations through industrialization. Decorative art objects were key catalysts in illustrating to attendees Victorian ideals, trends and “best taste.”

This exhibition illustrates through objects and narrative the earliest World’s Fair in 1851 London, through several in Paris, and the Centennial and World’s Columbian Exhibitions in the United States. The objects tell the story of how glass, pottery, sculpture and other arts were innovative for their time and on-trend or trend setters for the movements of the Victorian Era, Japanese influences on Western art, and Art Nouveau. These major public events full of over-the-top fanfare gave access to wide audiences, often millions, while revealing to attendees the peoples and cultures from the furthest of lands. 

In the Victorian Era fairs grew exponentially, and the investment was enormous with entire campuses of buildings/pavilions designed and constructed, waterways, fields, gardens, churches, amusement rides, cafeterias, streets and so much more. The buildings were packed with exhibitions from states encouraging tourism, companies showcasing their wares, machines, communication innovations, and presentations. Many countries had either their own pavilion or had an area designated to highlight the craft, art, and culture of their native lands, although today we would find many elements of these displays beyond reproach.

Though invention was also a highlight of the Victorian era fairs – electrification, light bulbs, moving sidewalks, automobiles, blimps, industrialization, new foods like ice cream cones, rides like the Ferris wheel, medical advancements and more – those early fairs highlighted art in many forms. Displays included corn palaces, huge animal sculptures made of odd materials (like almonds), massive statues, paintings, floral displays, and even butter sculptures! Decorative arts firms like Tiffany & Co., Weller Pottery, Rookwood Pottery, Gallé, Gorham Bronze Works, Libby and the Quaker City Glass Co. had entire rooms full of elaborate displays in competition for the Grand Prix award.

The University Museums’ permanent collection includes several objects that were souvenirs of these major events. Souvenirs ranged from booklets, paper fans, buttons, and ribbons, to commemorative glassware and ceramics produced on-site.

World's fair and expo objects and souvenirs remain highly collectable today. The selected objects in this exhibition help tell the story of the evolution of these major influential events - the good and the bad, the artistic and the functional. The use of primary source objects of the period allows visitors to the exhibition to evaluate the merits of aspects of the past and learn about how the future of these expos is now focused on entertainment through technological innovation and eco-awareness rather than cultural misappropriation.

Curated by Gracia Koele, 2023 Pohlman Fellow


Exhibition Programs

Find full descriptions of programs on the University Museums Calendar. All programs are free and open to the public. Registration is  not required unless noted. Events listed below will be at the Farm House Museum (601 Farmhouse Lane, Ames, Iowa) unless otherwise noted. Times are Central Standard Time. Programs are subject to change. Check the University Museums Calendar and Facebook page for the latest events information.


Curator's Tour of World's Fairs, Expositions and Centennial Celebrations
with Allison Sheridan

Thursday, February 8, 5:00–6:00 p.m.

Join Farm House curator Allison Sheridan to take a first look at the newly installed exhibition and delve into the influences of these international events on decorative arts from 1851 to 1910.


Fantastical Dreamscapes: Architectural Wonders and Innovations at World Expos, 1851 to 1911
with Lisa D. Schrenk, Professor of Architectural History, University of Arizona

Tuesday, February 27, 5:00–6:00 p.m.

Virtual on Zoom (link)

Zoom around the globe with University of Arizona Professor of Architectural History Lisa D. Schrenk to explore the architectural designs and building innovations that shaped the first 60 years of international expositions, including advances in iron, glass, electricity, and aesthetics, that made possible the magnificent pavilions that covered the fairgrounds at these grand events.

This lecture is co-sponsored by The Institute for the Study of International Expositions (ISIE) of which Schrenk is co-founder.


The Enthronement of Merchandise with the Aura of Amusement
with Ethan Robey, World's Fairs Scholar, University of California, Irvine

Sunday, April 14, 2:00–3:00 p.m.

Virtual on Zoom (link)

World's fairs scholar Ethan Robey, University of California, Irvine, will discuss the grandiose displays of manufacturers at late 19th- and early 20th-century world’s fairs, and the way these events precipitated into American homes in material form, as souvenirs and commercial goods, and in social form, as object lessons in taste and what it meant to be a consumer in a modernizing world.

Visit the Farm House Museum

Hours: Monday–Friday, noon–4:00 p.m.
Closed Saturday, Sunday, and University holidays & breaks
Click here to see when the museums are closed.

Address: 601 Farm House Lane, Ames, Iowa
Admission: The cost is free; however, there is a suggested donation of $8.

Funding for the exhibition and associated programming is generously provided by Carol Pletcher. 

Images from top:

World's Columbian Fair Chicago 1983 Pamphlet
Gift of Henry and Ann Brunnier. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 76.30.88

Vase, c. 1900
Cristallerie d'Émile Gallé, French
Émile Gallé (French, 1846 - 1904)
Glass, cameo
Gift of the Estate of Helen and Rex Cook. In the Helen and Rex Cook Glass Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2016.49

Tumbler, World's Fair pattern, c. 1904
Attributed to Westmoreland Glass Co. (American, Grapeville, PA, 1889–1984)
Non-flint clear pressed glass with gold flashing
Gift of Jacquelyn Smith. In the Iowa Quester Glass Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2005.43

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