The idea of international exhibitions
Since the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, international exhibitions, or world’s fairs (as they are called in the United States), have been major events where nations put themselves on display. New Zealand has participated in many, and has copied the format at home.
Precedents for these exhibitions were traditional European market fairs and the French industrial exhibitions held intermittently from 1797. The 1851 Great Exhibition in London, inspired by the vision of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, was the first international exhibition and established the mode. Between 1855 and 1915 an exhibition involving more than 20 nations was held, on average, every two years.
They were primarily glorified showrooms in which nations and firms displayed goods in the hope of encouraging sales. Medals were awarded, which firms subsequently used in their advertising. Exhibitions were also tributes to economic progress and displays of the latest technology. Often their buildings embodied a fantasy, futuristic element. Promoters argued that exhibitions also served educational purposes and so they increasingly encouraged mass attendance. Art exhibitions were always part of the fairs, and increasingly countries used the opportunity to advertise their culture along with their social and physical attractions. New Zealand’s displays at exhibitions tell of the nation’s evolving identity.
On a small scale
The New Zealand display at the 1851 Great Exhibition included two interesting models. One was a model of volcanic White Island (Whakaari) with a drawing by surveyor Charles Heaphy. The second was a model of a ‘war pah on a scale of half an inch to six feet’1 exhibited by H. C. Balneavis. Balneavis had come to New Zealand in 1845 as an officer with the 58th Regiment and served throughout the northern war. The model of Te Ruapekapeka pā was afterwards put on display in the museum at the United Service Institution.
Great Exhibition, 1851
At the Great Exhibition in London, New Zealand was offered a place among the British and colonial produce (as distinct from foreign produce) on the western side of the spectacular Crystal Palace building, which was designed by Joseph Paxton to house the exhibition. In June 1850 colonists were encouraged to contribute specimens. The local committee’s suggestions included flax in all stages of preparation, wood, wool and ‘specimens of native art’2. This was largely what they received.
The exhibition was organised into four classes – manufactures, machinery, raw materials and arts, and the New Zealand display of 40 collections fell largely into the last two classes. There were about 20 specimens of flax, various minerals such as copper ore from Kawau and coal from Waikato, New Zealand woods (some made into furniture), Māori handcrafts, kauri gum and a vegetable caterpillar. But, amid the scale of the Great Exhibition, the display was small and little-noticed.