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The exhibitions of the twentieth century reflect the technological advances of their period. A marked difference can be seen between, on the one hand, universal exhibitions, such as those that emphasize science and technology or movements in painting, sculpture, or photography, all of which reflect aesthetic, political, or historical issues, and, on the other hand, commercial exhibitions, even when they are international in nature. Generally, an exhibition presents the international public with a national phenomenon (art, sciences, products) through signs, objects, and a range of communications. The term exhibition implies the showing of objects in a particular temporal and spatial context.

Exhibiting is motivated by several aims and objectives and therefore has a number of functions. The first is the symbolic function, in which the objective is largely political. The second is the commercial function: objects are for sale. The third is a scientific function: exhibitions have an informative purpose, explaining and interpreting the items on display. This function is usually in play at museums of science, technology, and ecology. Some expositions have explanatory notices or plaques for attendees to read, or films for them to view. The surrounding sound, the lighting, and the way visitors move within the exhibition space also vary according to the function of the exhibition and depend on the exhibition's intended public and the social space in which it takes place. However, every exhibition conforms to a single goal, which is to facilitate the relationship between production and reception.


With the exception of art exhibitions, which have specific traditions of their own that do not stem from the same concerns, conceiving of an exhibition involves embracing several perspectives that all relate to the concept of heritage: paying tribute to the past, leaving traces for posterity, and transmitting and interpreting movements and innovations in the exposition's particular field.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, a major upsurge of art exhibitions took place. These can be divided into several categories:

  • The biennial: for example, the first São Paulo Biennial in 1951; the first biennial of contemporary African art in Dakar—Dak'Art—in 1992; and the first Montreal Biennial in 1998.
  • The month of the photograph: for example, in 1980, the month of photography was launched in Paris.
  • The manifesta: the first manifesta was created in Rotterdam in 1996. The encounter: for example, the 1973 opening of the International Photography Encounter at the Arles Festival.
  • The fair: for example, the International Fair of Contemporary Art in Paris, which began in 1973.

What all these exhibitions had in common was that they traced and displayed a multitude of experiences—the most contemporary creation—occurring at the time they took place.


In universal exhibitions, the different focuses and functions of other exhibitions are combined. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, universal exhibitions brought major technological and artistic trends together with minor phenomena in a single space. However, universal exhibitions have tended to highlight the politics of their periods, becoming concrete examples of competition between the organizing states. The first universal exhibition, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, took place in London in 1851 and featured two major themes: technological innovation and "exotic items" originating from the exhibitors' colonies. Universal exhibitions continued to have a colonial character and became stage sets for the display of products from the colonies of the European industrial powers. This culminated in 1883 with the first international colonial exhibition in Amsterdam.

Universal exhibitions were also the setting for many conferences and led to the adoption of the meter as an international unit of measurement in 1875. The 1930s were a difficult period for universal exhibitions because they were flanked by the two world wars and the Great Depression, which began in 1929. Nevertheless, world's fairs took place in Chicago in 1933, Brussels in 1935, and Paris in 1937, and they were important political events; by contrast, Rome was forced to cancel its world's fair in 1942. World War II and the reconstruction that followed led to a suspension of universal exhibitions. It was not until 1958 that the next universal exhibition took place, in Brussels, and it reflected a profound change in attitudes toward Europe's colonies, which had begun pressing for emancipation.

Most international exhibitions have left their mark on the architecture of the cities in which they took place. For architects, these exhibitions are the privileged site of daring innovations and a source of new styles, such as art deco, which arose from the Paris exhibition of 1925. The first universal exhibition in London took place in a single building: the Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton and constructed entirely of glass and iron. The Paris exhibition in 1867 marked a radical departure in that the participants assembled in several buildings. All the universal exhibitions that have taken place in Paris left a permanent mark on the urban landscape: the 1889 exhibition brought the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the inauguration of the Paris metro; the 1900 exhibition was the occasion for several architectural achievements, including the Pont Alexandre III and the Grand and Petit Palais, as well as a Chinese pagoda that later became the site of a famous Parisian cinema; the 1937 universal exhibition brought the construction of the Palais de Tokyo and Palais de Chaillot. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the 1937 Paris exhibition was the setting for a German-Soviet architectural duel, with the Germanic eagle that crowned Albert Speer's building standing in opposition to the Soviets' vast block of marble. This exhibition was also the setting for a universal testimony against barbarism. In the Spanish pavilion, Pablo Picasso presented Guernica, a painting depicting the German bombing of a Basque town.

Paris was not the only city where exhibitions left an architectural legacy; other examples include Saint Louis with its Pike (1904), San Francisco with its Gay Way (1939), Brussels with its Atomium (1958), San Antonio with its the Tower of America (1968), and Osaka with its Expoland (1970). The Osaka exhibition also marked the advent of an unprecedented collaboration between artists and engineers, culminating in the creation of the Pepsi-Cola pavilion. The exhibition was also marked by an innovative use of modern architecture. These few examples illustrate a change in the universal exhibition. Initially, they were held in European countries but gradually became more genuinely international.

Universal exhibitions celebrate economic changes and demonstrate the increased power of certain states. A hundred years after it first took part in exhibitions, Japan celebrated its accession to the ranks of the great industrial powers in Osaka in 1970. The 1992 universal exhibition in Seville marked the emergence of modern Spain and reaffirmed its European membership. The same was true of Lisbon in 1998. In 2000 Hanover inaugurated the first universal exhibition of the second millennium, but it was with the 2005 Aichi exhibition, near Nagoya in Japan, dedicated to sustainable development, that the visitor entered a world of robots and technological innovations that can no longer be termed futuristic.


Art exhibitions generally focus on a single artist, although some present an artistic movement or a particular period: an example of this is Reconsidering the Object of Art 1965–1975 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1995 and 1996. Others focus on a specific object or set of themes. Relations between two cities—generally major artistic centers—can also form the subject of exhibitions: for example, the Paris-Berlin exhibition in 1978, followed by Paris-Moscow the following year at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.

Art exhibitions can arise from profound deliberation on the part of the curator, who then presents his or her viewpoint on how to approach the art works. This is what Harald Szeemann did in 1969 with When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle in Berne or what Norman Rosenthal and Christos M. Joachimides did in 1982 with Zeitgeist at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

Some exhibitions treat a work of art as a document within a historical, political, and ideological context. The exhibition's purpose is then to illustrate this entire context, as was done in the Berlin Myths of the Nations: Arena of Memories exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 2004 and 2005. The historical dimension of some art exhibitions enables the viewer to visit a part of the past that is otherwise obscured by ideology or propaganda and make comparisons. The Berlin-Moscow 1900–1950 exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie in 2004 is a good example of this. As the philosopher and art critic Yves Michaud observed, "There are as many kinds of exhibition as there are methods of classifying objects and since everything resembles something else in some respect, there is a confusing multitude of ways of assembling objects or art works" (Michaud, p. 129).


Since the nineteenth century, artists have dealt with institutions. In 1855, after his canvases had been rejected thirteen times for the universal exhibition, Gustave Courbet presented forty canvases in his own pavilion on Avenue Montaigne, financed by his patron, Alfred Bruyas. This was the first solo exhibition held by an artist in his own lifetime.

The exhibition can be the site of a battle between artistic movements, as happened with Paul Cézanne's triumph and the creation of the fauvist movement at the Salon d'Automne in 1904 or, in the realm of abstract painting, the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937. The Armory Show, which was held in the New York armory and then in Chicago in 1913, remains one of the major art exhibitions and is credited with disseminating throughout the world the works of European avant-garde artists such as Alexander Archipenko, Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh.

In the twentieth century, institutions emerged that were historically important for their architectural modernity and their acquisition policies; they were also notable for exhibitions that are remembered both for their innovations and for the scandals they generated. Examples include the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, the Paris opening of the Musée National d'Art Moderne in 1947, and the inauguration of the UNESCO building in Paris in 1958. In 1977 the Georges Pompidou Center opened its doors with two major exhibitions: Paris-New York and a Marcel Duchamp retrospective. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, two events are worthy of note: the inauguration of the Ludwigsmuseum in Cologne and the Reina Sofía Art Center in Madrid in 1986.

As showcases for contemporary art, galleries have played a major role in the development of art movements. The Denise René Gallery played a significant part in the dissemination of abstract art and brought renown to the kinetic artists in France after 1944. In a relatively rare phenomenon in the art world, in 2001 the Georges Pompidou Center paid tribute to the substantial role played by this gallery.

Museums and other art institution are not the only sites for art exhibitions, however. Joseph Beuys organized an exhibition in the stables at the Van der Grinten house in Kranenburg in 1963, and in 1973 the Contemporanea exhibition was held in the underground parking lot at the Villa Borghese in Rome. Such nontraditional spaces form a symbolic extension of the museum.

The history of exhibitions can be traced through the scandals that they have generated. At the exhibition 1960–1972: Douze ans d'art contemporain en France (1960–1972: Twelve years of contemporary art in France), the Swiss artist Ben Vautier displayed a flask of his urine, incurring the wrath of politicians and sparking police intervention. In 2000 the machine produced by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, Cloaca, which artificially reproduces the human digestive system, was placed on public view and has been the object of polemic ever since. The same has happened to the wax sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan, La nona ora (The ninth hour), which represents the pope being crushed by a meteorite.


In the twentieth century, exhibitions, whether international or commercial, have served to create, display, and influence art and technology. In doing so, they served as an important catalyst for the idea, for its dissemination and eventual commodification.

See alsoArchitecture; Art Deco; Colonialism; Duchamp, Marcel; Guernica; Picasso, Pablo.


Allwood. John. The Great Exhibitions. London, 1977.

Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. New York, 1995.

Kavanagh, Gaynor, ed. Museum Languages: Objects and Texts. New York, 1991.

Michaud, Yves. L'artiste et les commissaires: Quatre essais non pas sur l'art contemporain mais sur ceux qui s'en occupent. Collection Rayon Art, Jacqueline Chambon. Nimes, France, 1989.

Miles, Roger, and Lauro Zavala, eds. Towards the Museum of the Future: New European Perspectives. London, 1994.

Ory, Pascal. L'expo universelle. Brussels, 1989.

Cyril Thomas

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