I’ve spent a lifetime studying the history of world’s fairs and I’m often asked which expo is my favorite. It’s always been a difficult thing to answer, but in recent years, I realized there really has only been one answer. My favorite expo is always the next one. Living in the United States, that’s become a challenge as of late since we haven’t had a world’s fair in North America since 1986.
When I was just fifteen, growing up in Atlanta, I was fortunate to live just hours from Knoxville, Tennessee which hosted the Knoxville International Energy Exposition, better known locally as the 1982 World’s Fair. Two years later, I went to the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans. In college, I saved up money for a cheap flight to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada to see Expo ’86. I was clearly hooked on expos at an early age.
What I would not have anticipated, at the age of 19 visiting Expo ’86, was that I wouldn’t see another world’s fair in North America for decades. The earliest we can possibly see an expo in North America, at this point, is 2022.
Why has this happened? There are many theories.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the United States seems to have lost its appetite for world’s fairs at the same time it lost interest in space exploration. I think there’s certainly a relationship between a nation’s ability to envision progress and a willingness to invest in its future in ways that might not seem tangible at the time… and its interest in hosting world’s fairs.
It’s also clear that the two relatively modest world’s fairs of the 1980’s in the United States, diminished the enthusiasm for them. Their financial troubles also didn’t help.
When I talk with other Americans about world’s fairs, folks older than me are surprised to discover they still happen. Most assume they weren’t held any more. Talking with people younger than me, they have no memory of them at all. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that there was little advocacy for continued United States membership in the BIE when it ended about ten years ago. No one can seem to pinpoint why, but the United States Congress stopped funding US membership in the BIE in 2002.
However, I remain optimistic. With the success of Shanghai’s Expo 2010, there’s renewed interest in bringing the medium of world expos back to the United States.
Currently, there are three organized movements whose goal is to bring a world’s fair back to the United States. A group of Minnesotans is looking to host Expo 2022 (a recognized expo) and groups in Houston and the San Francisco are looking to resurrect aborted attempts for an Expo 2020 bid with an eye to host Expo 2025 (a sanctioned expo). In all three cases, there seems to be a growing number of business interests who recognize what a world’s fair can bring to those regions as well as the country as a whole. The question now, is how to encourage the political will for the United States to re-join the BIE in order to make the dream of a US world’s fair in the 21st Century a reality.
I think it all comes down to whether my country has the appetite once again for optimism and a new sense of common purpose. I would really like to once again be able to say, when Expo 2020 closes, that my newest favorite world's fair (the next one) is an American one once again.