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Story: Exhibitions and world’s fairs

How New Zealand has chosen to represent itself at international exhibitions gives an insight into how the country has seen itself and what has been important to it at different times.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: The colonial produce section of the Great Exhibition, 1851

Story Summary

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International exhibitions, also known as expos or world’s fairs, are major events where countries represent themselves with displays. They have aimed to encourage trade and tourism, and also give insights into national identity.

The Great Exhibition, 1851

The first was the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. New Zealand was a very new colony, but it had a small display in the British and colonial section, showing off its raw materials such as flax and minerals, and Māori crafts.

International exhibitions, 1862 to 1900

From the 1860s the New Zealand government exhibited at many international exhibitions in Europe, the United States and Australia, including at Philadelphia in 1876, the Colonial and Indian exhibition in London in 1886, and Paris in 1889.

New Zealand’s displays showed what was important to the country at the time. They included:

  • the country’s raw materials, including coal, wool, flax, wood and a gold-covered pyramid showing how much gold New Zealand had produced
  • items made from raw materials, such as wooden furniture
  • a few manufactured goods, such as boots or soaps
  • photographs and paintings designed to show off the beauty of New Zealand, with the aim of attracting tourists and migrants
  • Māori cultural objects including jewellery and clothes, and larger structures such as wharenui (meeting houses) and pātaka (storehouses).

New Zealand exhibitions, 1865 to 1900

New Zealand also hosted exhibitions, some of which had international attendees. The first of these was in Dunedin in 1865. Exhibitions to encourage local industry were held from the 1880s. They often included entertainment such as art displays and concerts.

The New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Dunedin, 1889–90) commemorated 50 years of British sovereignty over New Zealand. It was the first New Zealand exhibition to include an amusement zone with rides.

Several exhibitions were held to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of provinces, and were mainly to show off local manufactured goods.

International exhibitions, 1900 to 1950

In the first half of the 20th century New Zealand was more selective about which international exhibitions it attended. They included world’s fairs in St Louis and New York in the United States. At the Coronation Exhibition in London in 1911, 50 Te Arawa people lived in a traditional Māori village.

New Zealand’s displays continued to promote tourism, and agricultural products became important.

New Zealand exhibitions, 1900 onwards

The New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch, in 1906–7, had a massive 2 million visitors – twice the population of New Zealand at the time! Many people obviously went more than once to enjoy the many exhibits and entertainments.

Dunedin’s New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, in 1925-26, was the most popular in the country’s history, attracting over 3 million visitors.

In 1939 the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition opened in Wellington to celebrate 100 years since New Zealand became a British colony. The outbreak of the Second World War that same year affected visitor numbers.

Large exhibitions have not been popular in New Zealand since the mid-20th century.

World’s fairs since 1950

Since 1950 New Zealand has attended five international exhibitions: Osaka Expo 70 in Japan, Brisbane World Expo 88 in Australia, Seville Expo 92 in Spain, Expo 2005 in Japan, and Shanghai Expo 2010 in China.

The key things New Zealand has been trying to sell at these expos are:

  • the beauty of New Zealand, to encourage tourism
  • Māori culture
  • the Kiwi way of life.
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Exhibitions and world’s fairs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/exhibitions-and-worlds-fairs (accessed 18 August 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014