Event—Public Programming

Eye of the Beholder: Visitor Experience at 19th-Century World Fairs


“Sixty-two thousand human beings collected under one roof is of itself a rare, grand, and touching show. As you sat on the benches under Dent’s great clock, which goes solemnly moving on like the visible finger of time, and looked down on the ever-stirring, yet ever-stationery sea of life below, you were filled with a sense of inexpressible awe. Your own individuality dwindled into nothing.”

Published in McMillan’s Magazine in December 1862, this contemporary description of London’s second International Exhibition is illustrative of the importance of visitors in creating the spectacle of nineteenth-century world fairs. In this talk, Dr. Ruth Slatter will focus on the many thousands of visitors who streamed through these exhibition spaces. Using guidebooks, newspaper reports, polemical magazine articles, and photographs taken of these events, she will reflect on the glimpses they provide into how visitors contributed to and experienced nineteenth-century world fairs. What did they make of designed objects on display? How did they respond to the new technologies being promoted? How did their presence in Chicago, London, Paris, Barcelona, and other host cities contribute to the momentary design of these cityscapes?

Ruth Slatter, lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Hull, is a historical and cultural geographer, primarily interested in individuals’ experiences of nineteenth-century institutional spaces. Since 2011 she has been collaboratively researching with Helen Cresswell the visitor experience of nineteenth-century world fairs. In 2013, they established the Visit1862 project, an online space for the exchange of knowledge about world fairs and how visitors experienced them.

Download a PDF flyer for this event to post and distribute, and check out a Quick Guide to related materials in the Newberry collection.

This event is cosponsored with the Caxton Club, in celebration of its new book Chicago By the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image, which is funded in part by the Terra Foundation for American Art's Art Design Chicago initiative.

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