Celebrating 125th Anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Newberry Opens Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair

Case r 1832 07 vol 6 014

Featuring photographs, maps, works of art, souvenirs, and books from the Newberry's collection, Pictures from an Exposition explores how the World's Columbian Exposition captured the imagination of its generation, in Chicago and beyond. As the grandest international spectacle in a great age of spectacles, the 1893 World's Fair’s shaped the expectations, experiences, and memories of audiences through a dazzling array of visual imagery. Pictures of both the "White City"and the Midway Plaisance, the adjacent entertainment strip, quickly became cultural icons.

The range of the fair’s signature imagery—appearing on everything from postcards and official souvenir books to playing cards and bootlegged photo albums—reflected the many competing narratives advanced by the event’s organizers and participants.

"There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen,"says Diane Dillon, the Newberry’s Director of Exhibitions and the curator of Pictures from an Exposition. "City boosters sought to position Chicago on the global stage as a cultured metropolis that had rebounded from the Great Fire of 1871; Daniel Burnham, the fair’s Director of Works, emphasized the exposition as an architectural showpiece; and entrepreneurial exhibitors advertised everything from Iowa corn and Javanese coffee to electric lights and Columbus portraits. The world’s first Ferris wheel, rising 264 feet at the center of the Midway, offered thrilling rides and views, while live displays of native peoples from across the world capitalized on—and reinforced—the culturally determined racial hierarchies of the day.”

Installation photos of Pictures from an Exposition:

Despite their best efforts to control how visitors experienced and remembered the 1893 exposition, event officials could not prevent bootleggers, unlicensed vendors, and the fairgoers themselves from putting their stamp on the fair. Foreshadowing how individuals today document large events, some visitors brought their own cameras—paying a fee to do so for the sake of personalizing their memory of the World’s Fair.

Letters, diaries, and other materials on display in Pictures from an Exposition help us understand how fairgoers actually experienced the exposition.

Pictures from an Exposition is the first major exhibition to appear in the Newberry’s newly remodeled first floor. It also marks the official unveiling of the complete set of spaces that have been transformed as part of the $12.7 million renovation.

Last month, the library opened its new welcome center and expanded bookshop. With the opening of Pictures from an Exposition, the remaining first-floor spaces are now open to the public as well. In addition to redesigned galleries for thematic exhibitions like Pictures from an Exposition, the Newberry’s revamped main floor includes a gallery for a new permanent exhibition, From the Stacks, featuring highlights from the library; a climate-controlled seminar room where visiting classes and other groups can interact directly with collection items and staff; and flexible spaces for public programs and private events.

Installation photos of From the Stacks:

"Together, all these different spaces represent a unified environment where we are able to welcome visitors more effectively and inspire them to engage with us and our collections,"said Newberry President David Spadafora. "The opening of Pictures from an Exposition and the completion of our first-floor project couldn’t occur at a more fortuitous time: the 125th anniversary of both the World’s Columbian Exposition and the building at 60 West Walton Street that the Newberry—and our community of learning—calls home.”