The Cultural Effects Of Expos
The idea for Expo can be traced all the way back to the French Napoleonic period (1). During that time, the French government sponsored exhibitions that put goods on display in Paris (1). The exhibitions were unique, dramatic and extraordinary by definition. They also attracted a mass gathering of people, only paralleled by wars. The results of these early exhibitions were translated into quantifiable economic gains, making them an instant success. So much so that the French government intended to make it a yearly event, but political instabilities made that impossible (1).
After that the French experiment was replicated in other states, also successfully. And the idea for an exhibition went from local to global, with the first international Expo debuting in 1851 in Britain (2). By that time, Expos were mass theatres reserved to displaying inventions branded as the ‘greatest human inventions’, promoting Expos from an exhibition to a civilization-development-index. Industrial machines, elevators, petrol as a fuel, electric lights, batteries, electric trains, flying machines, A.Cs, refrigerators, nuclear reactors and lasers are revolutionary inventions that were all first debuted in Expos (1). So were Gustav’s Eifel tower and statue of liberty, asserting that the ‘greatest human inventions’ aren’t necessarily scientific triumphs only. They could be ideological concepts too.
From inception until the 1930s, Expos were inherently imperialistic (1). Empires displayed their colonial possessions as commodities and branded them as national discoveries (1). For instance, in the 1851 Expo, Britain ‘presented’ India as its spice-rich colonial possession, where the tea was popularized and infiltrated into British society (1). While France presented its North African colonies in the 1878 Expo (1). This was no mistake of empires. On the contrary, it was an opportunistic policy to use the Expo to promote self-serving ideologies, in this case imperialism. The imperial Expos had three main objectives: first, to assert that the nation is an imperial power (1). Second, to justify to the citizens the utility of the colonies, which they were paying for with their taxes and their men (1). Third, is to justify to their colonies’ upper classes that their subordination is, in a final analysis, for the greater good (1). Evidently, Expos were being used as a tool to increase the attractiveness of a preferred world order.
Similarly, Expos were grand social events. In a pre-television era, it was the miracle of all miracles. The gathering of people from around the world allowed the exchange of ideas and the diffusion of norms and values. Again, a by-product of mega-events that wasn’t lost on the organizers. And hence a great deal of effort went into organizing conferences and cultural sub-exhibitions that included the participation of the some of the most influential thinkers at a given time. This included Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud (1). Ideas were on exhibition too. In fact, Expos were so instrumental in propagating important ideas that scholars have attributed the 1862 Expo to be instrumental for disseminating the Marxist message by popularizing and recruiting for Marx’s ‘international workingmen association’ (3). Scholars also established that ideas from Expos diffused into American culture, art, architecture, culture and economic structure (1). Indicating that Expos aren’t a static reflection of cultures, but a shaper of cultures too.
In a post-imperialist world order, Expos are no longer used as an ideological weapon. Nor are they used to orchestrate government-led national narratives aimed at increasing the soft power of the hosting state (4). On the contrary, the trend has been reversed with developing countries competing for and dominating the hosting of mega-events (5). The international recognition and prestige of mega-events has turned hosting them into a coming-out party for emerging states (5). Indeed, research indicates that mega-events assist in nation-building (6). For instance, successfully hosting mega-events contribute to leadership legitimation and national identity legitimation. They serve as practical proof for the organizational competence of an emerging state and its acceptance into the world stage. Therefore emphasizing the ‘correctness’ of the leadership’s vision for the nation and their ability to deliver it.
Mega-events don’t just reinforce national identities, they also transform them. For instance, for the hosting state, Expos add a hallmark chapter in ‘the story of the nation’. Hence, increasing the national pride of its citizens. It also serves as a point-of-reference against which time can be benchmarked against, just as fashion periodicals are sometimes benchmarked against. Similarly, the pride of hosting a mega-event can serve as a national unification tool that strengthens the sense of community (7). They also add to a celebratory mood and a moment of triumph, all the more identifiable in a mid-pandemic world. Mega-events have also been shown to increase the perception of social inclusion amongst citizens and residents of a hosting state (8). Similarly, they have been shown to increase the perception of well-being and general quality of life of citizens and residents (9). Furthermore, mega-events have been shown to diffuse skills and knowledge into a host society, with the host state sometimes retaining skilled visitors as future workers (10).
The culturally catalytic nature of Expos are also seen in the organic mass communication of political ideas, social philosophies and values, away from carefully constructed self-images of a nationality on Television or social media. In this sense, they also offer a venue for exposing what ‘the other’ thinks of you (7). This allows for corrections of misconceptions amongst different cultures. It also allows for the reassessment of a different culture as a homogenous monolith, allowing the viewing of all the different shades of one country’s nationals. This paves the way for reconciliation with hostile nations, as was the case with the friendly ping-pong match that paved the way for resumption of Chinese-American diplomatic relation, which came to be known as ping-pong diplomacy (11). Thus mega-events allow the formation long-lasting socio-cultural transformations of both the nationals and the visitors.
In a post-modern world, where the rhetoric on the sameness of all cultures is prevailing, mega-events can display the distinctiveness of a culture with its local traditions (12) (13). This can either serve to strengthen local traditions or to weaken them. Mega-events also have psychological impacts on both residents and visitors, by forming emotional bonds with the host country and its narrative (7). This psychological effect for visitors travelling to a mega-event can later be translated to economic gains by increasing their probability to revisit the host nation. It also increases the probability of a foreign public’s support for foreign policy initiatives in their home countries. Or in other words, it allows the host nation to conduct public diplomacy. At scale, and simultaneously with different publics. A much needed initiative for the UAE that is lagging behind public diplomacy efforts in its Twitter Diplomacy strategy.
By context, mega-events are progressive, secular, capitalistic and international. This places some demands on personal identities with risks such as the loss of self, national identity or personal agency. Yet, it also allows for the unproblematic integration of local culture with the global one. In 2020, MBR tweeted “We want to send a message to everyone that the UAE will continue to build bridges with all nations, and will continue to weave positive economic and developmental relations with everyone, and will continue to embrace all the cultures of the world, because we aren’t a country in the world, we’re the world in one country”. Indicating the security of the Emirati identity in a competitive identity framework, that is able to balance a local identity with an international one.
To conclude, Expos aren’t just exhibitions for scientific discoveries and new technologies that can turn the world upside down, they’re also exhibitions of people. As nations come together to put on display their people, change, reconstruction, transformation, friendships, hostilities, reconciliation, cooperation and competitions are all possible social outcomes. What will be the specific social and cultural influences of the Dubai 2021 Expo? Only time will tell. And time takes its time. What can be done is that researchers turn a curious and vigilant eye on the interactions that will shortly unfold on the arena of the Dubai Expo, and attempt to study it.
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