Exhibiting Temporal Hierarchizations

Great Expositions, temporal hierarchisation, and the birth of a global consciousness

According to Darko Suvin, “the instauration of capitalist production as the dominant and finally all-pervasive way of life engendered a fundamental reorientation of human practice and imagination: a wished-for or feared future becomes the new space of the cognitive (and increasingly of the everyday) imagination.”1  The expansion of the Western powers brought about techno-driven globalisation processes at an increased speed,2 bearing remarkable consequences in the development of a globalised consciousness, and of ideas and imageries deeply rooted in new knowledge concerning remote areas of the globe and their inhabitants.

The origins of this process can in fact be traced back to the multiple availability of sources deriving from geographical explorations, to the momentum thus gained by comparative and universal history during the late-modern age, and to the growing influence of Enlightenment ideas of progress and conjectural histories, organising civilisations according to subsequent stages of development.3

Notions regarding examples of radical “otherness” from remote parts of the globe conceptualised as remains of the common human past and instances of humanity in its infancy were decisive in fostering ideas of historical time as a dimension of progressive development. Ideas of degeneration and stagnation applied to other societies implied the use of the European civilisation as a standard against which other might be evaluated, and also brought about reflections on historical time as a frame of causal relations between phenomena and human actions. In ideas of a linear and irreversible historical time lies the – insufficient but necessary – precondition for the hierarchisations of societies and humans that will characterise a mature imperialistic phase.4

During the nineteenth century, these conceptualizations informed important expressions of popular culture, such as the Great Expositions, in which a temporal dimension was touched upon by central symbolic and discursive structures.5 Through the recreation of ancient Greek and Roman monuments, medieval quarters and villages, and the living ethno-expositions of alien humans presented as embodying primitive or early stages of civilisation,6 international exhibitions effectively put on stage a temporal dimension, which culminated in sections devoted to the scientific and technological wonders of Western modernity and progress.

This temporal hierarchisation provided the ideological frame in which an increasing thematization of the future found a place, and this became central near the end of the century, with the 1889’s Eiffel Tower, Alva Edison’s pavilion of electric light, and the Hall of Machines. Conflating ideas of history and images of the globe7 in limited urban areas – or even in single attractions, such as George Wyld’s Great Globe in Leicester Square during the London Great Exhibition of 1851 – these expositions allowed visitors to complete a tour of the world on foot in a few hours. As one of the first and most effective “laboratories for a global space-time,”8 these exhibits made a decisive contribution to the elaboration of a science-fictional mind-set.9

The technological sublime, which became typical of early speculative-fiction literature and illustration, has the same cultural backdrop as Expos and Fairs, and is partly indebted to the exhibitionary strategies of those early pavilions. Expos embodied a growing interest in science and technology, helped to visualise their future effects on human society and the global environment, and put forward a use of technology not strictly utilitarian, but rather aimed at fostering a sense of wonder in its spectators. As early as 1905 on Coney Island, with the dark ride A Trip to the Moon designed by Frederick Thompson, visitors could physically travel through scenic illusions, which staged a whole series of early science fiction tropes, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (patented in 1903) to the North Pole, to a War of Worlds.10 The latter – which despite the similar title was not inspired by H. G. Wells’ novel of 1897 – enacted an attack on New York by (small-scale) European navies. This attraction was heir to the naumachias that, since the Roman world and throughout modern Europe, had constituted a form of entertainment and public spectacle,11 while also tapping into an“early-twentieth century frenzy for disaster spectacles, science fiction and ‘you are there’ adventure journeys.”12

It will come as no surprise that three years before publishing Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin, Jules Verne visited the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition. Here Joseph-Martin Cabirol’s diving suit (an innovative version of Augustus Siebe’s creation) received a prize, and model of the 1863 submarine Le plongeur was on display, which became sources of inspiration along with the other latest literary and current events.13 By the turn of the century, the diorama and panorama attractions in the “Tour du Monde” pavilion at Paris 1900 had a distinctive Vernian twist, being a miniature version of his namesake 1872 novel,14 designed by Alexandre Marcel, with the collaboration of Louis Doumoulin, already known as the “Jules Verne du pinceau.”15

The “Tour du Monde” with its Arabian, Japanese, Chinese and Indian sections among others, compressed geographical distances and summarized global space through the juxtaposition of remote cultures. A 1900 report on the Expo by the French Ministère du commerce, de l’industrie, des postes et des télégraphes highlighted that the attraction was home to various dioramas and an “exotic theatre” with 300 seats, devoted to the “most curious countries” serviced by the French Compagnie des messageries maritimes. Here living “natives” demonstrated for the public everyday activities or traditional dances,16 albums illustrated with lavish photos documented the mises en scènes and became tokens of the Fair for visitors to collect, and to enjoy (again) the aesthetic marvels and visits of important personalities.17

Another section of Paris 1900, the “Vieux Paris” designed by journalist, illustrator and novelist Albert Robida, condensed historical time from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth century into one attraction.18 The official report mentioned above described Robida’s attraction and documented it with numerous photos: “Le Vieux Paris se divisait en trois groupes principaux: quartier du moyen âge, s’étendant de la porte Saint-Michel (face au pont de l’Alma) à l’église Saint-Julien-des-Ménétriers; quartier des Halles au XVIIIème siècle; groupe formé par le Châtelet et le pont au Change (XVIIème siècle), la rue de la Foire Saint-Laurent (XVIIIème siècle) et le Palais (Renaissance).”19 The report highlighted the many leisures and attractions that animated the area, which included “a small battalion of figurants in costumes”: “Des établissements de spectacle, des restaurants, des cafés, de nombreuses boutiques pour la vente d’objets-souvenirs étaient installés dans le Vieux Paris et contribuaient à son animation. Un petit bataillon de figurants en costumes anciens peuplait la concession.”20 Among the dioramas described in the report, the exoticism of a Kremlin with special snow effects, was to be found alongside the techno-wonder of New York’s elevated railway.

Verne was among the authors featured in the Gazette du Vieux Paris: rédigée par une société d’écrivains des Annales politiques et littéraires, which Albert Robida designed to accompany the Vieux Paris section of the expo. The Gazette devoted fourteen four-page monographic issues to different moments in French history, and constituted a visual pendant of the recreation of pasts that was staged by architecture in the Vieux Paris section of the expo. From a first “Gallo-Roman” issue featuring Verne on “The Origin of Paris,” through a second “Merovingian” issue a third “Carolingian,” and so on, the Gazette was meant both as a guide to and souvenir from the exhibition. While contents celebrated French national spirit and its role in the birth of modern democracy, every issue embodied the era to which it was devoted, being printed on a different kind of paper, imitating fonts and illustration style of the period represented.21

Gazette du Vieux Paris. Rédigéè par une société d’écrivains des Annales Politiques et Litteraires, n. 1 – Numero Gallo-Romain, 15 Avril 1900, first page. Copy at the British Library. Photo: Giulia Iannuzzi.
Gazette du Vieux Paris. Rédigéè par une société d’écrivains des Annales Politiques et Litteraires, n. 1 – Numero Gallo-Romain, 15 Avril 1900, cover. Copy at the British Library. Photo: Giulia Iannuzzi.

In other works by Robida, the Great Expos is a central source of inspiration: Le vingtième siècle (1883), set in 1952, gives account of future society constructed around the inventions on show at the Paris 1881 Exposition Internationale d’Électricité. “Jadis chez aujourd’hui” (published in Le petit français illustré between 10 May and 14 June 1890) presents a time-travel fantasy featuring a scientist who resuscitates Molière and other literary figures and accompanies them to visit the Paris 1889 Exposition Universelle.22 The same ideas underpinning the design of the 1900 Vieux Paris are at work in such projections of a future Paris. Scenarios depicted in La guerre au vingtième siècle (1887)23 and La guerre infernale (1908) are logically extrapolated from the present as a consequence of historical processes, of an irreversible time flow and causal mechanisms. Ideas of progress informed these fictions, as well as, on occasion, the terrible awareness of the potential consequences of using new technologies to develop weapons and military hardware.


1 Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 115-116.

2 Daniel R. Headrick, Power over People: Technology, Environments, and Western Imperialism, 1400 to the Present (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012).

3 Guido Abbattista, “The Historical Thought of the French Philosophes,” in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, ed. José Rabasa, Masayuki Sato, Edoardo Tortarolo, and Daniel Woolf, vol. 3, 1400-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 406-427; Georg G. Iggers and Q. Edward Wang, with contributions from Supriya Mukherjee, A Global History of Modern Historiography (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 19-32; Daniel Woolf, A Global History of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), esp. 280-343.

4 On temporal hierarchization from a cultural history perspective: Chris Lorenz and Berber Bevernage, eds., Breaking up Time: Negotiating the Borders between Present, Past and Future (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013).

5 Guido Abbattista, Giulia Iannuzzi, “World Expositions as Time Machines: Two Views of the Visual Construction of Time between Anthropology and Futurama,” World History Connected 13, no. 3 (2016), doi: 10.5281/zenodo.2652723.

6 Guido Abbattista, ‘Concepts and Categories in the History of World Expositions: Introductory Remarks,” in Abbattista, ed., Moving Bodies, Displaying Nations: National Cultures, Race and Gender in World Expositions Nineteenth to Twenty-First Century (Trieste: EUT, 2014), 7-20; and Abbattista, Umanità in mostra: Esposizioni etniche e invenzioni esotiche in Italia (1880–1940) (Trieste: EUT, 2014), esp. 32-36.

7 Alexander C. T. Geppert, “True Copies: Time and Space Travels at British Imperial Exhibitions, 1880-1930,” in The Making of Modern Tourism: The Cultural History of the British Experience, 1600-2000, ed. Hartmut Berghoff Barbara Korte, Christopher Harvie, Ralph Schneider (Basingstoke-New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 223-248.

8 Roger Luckhurst, “Laboratories for Global Space-Time: Science-Fictionality and the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939,” Science Fiction Studies 39, no. 118 (2012): 385-400.

9 Brooks Landon, “SF Tourism,” in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 32-41.

10 Woody Register, The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): electronic edition, par. “The Crying Need for Novelty.”

11 Martha Pollak, Cities at War in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 284-286; Ignacio Ramos Gay, “Naumachias, the Ancient World and Liquid Theatrical Bodies on the Early 19th Century English Stage,” Miranda 11 (2015): 1-15, doi: 10.4000/miranda.6745.

12 John S. Berman, Coney Island (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003), 34; see also William J. Phalen, Coney Island: 150 Years of Rides, Fires, Floods, the Rich, the Poor and Finally Robert Moses (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 114.

13 William Butcher, “Introduction” and “Appendix: Sources of Ideas on Submarine Navigation,” in Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, trans. William Butcher (1870; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), ix-xxxi, 382-384, see xiv and 383; Smithsonian Libraries, Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780-1910, “Sea Changes,” website of the exhibition, July 1, 2015 – February 26, 2017,https://library.si.edu/exhibition/fantastic-worlds/sea-change.

14 Roger Benjamin, Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880-1930 (Berkley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 2003), 114.

15 Julien Béal, “Le Japon dans la collection photographique du peintre Louis-Jules Dumoulin (1860-1924) ,” Hal – Archives ouvertes 2017, hal-01517490v1: see 3 and note 9.

16 Alfred Picard (Ministère du commerce, de l’industrie, des postes et des télégraphes), Exposition universelle internationale de 1900 à Paris. Rapport général administratif et technique (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1902-1903), 8 vols., vol. 7, 226; accessed via Bibliothèque numérique en histoire des sciences et des techniques, http://cnum.cnam.fr.

17 Le Panorama. Exposition universelle 1900, sous la direction de René Baschet, avec les photographies de Neurdein frères et Maurice Baschet Publisher (Paris: Ludovic Baschet éd., 1900).

18 Exposition Universelle de 1900. Le Vieux Paris: guide historique, pittoresque et anecdotique (Paris: Ménard et Chaufour, 1900), booklet, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, ark:/12148/bpt6k201257n; see here, xviii-xiv for Robida as “maistre de l’oeuvre” and a list of his main collaborators. See also Elizabeth Emery and Laura Morowitz, Consuming the Past: The Medieval Revival in fin-de-siècle France (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003), esp. ch. 7 “Feasts, fools and festivals: the popular Middle Ages,” 171-208; Robida, créateur du Vieux Paris à l’Exposition Universelle de 1900, thematic issue of Le Téléphonoscope. Bulletin des amis d’Albert Robida 9 (2002), esp. Jean-Claude Viche, “Bibliographie sommaire sur «le Vieux Paris» de Robida,” 2.

19 “The Vieux Paris is divided into three main parts: the Middle Age district, extending from Porte Saint-Michel (opposite to the Alma Bridge) to the Saint-Julien-des-Ménétriers church; the district of the XVIII century halls; a quarter formed by the Châtelet and the Change bridge (XVII century), the Foire Saint-Laurent street (XVIII century) and the Palace (Renaissance).” Picard, Exposition universelle, vol. 7, 240, see also 244, where the report specifies that the area occupied by the Vieux Paris was 1.918-square meters large, and that to this had to be added a 250-meters long and 3.900-square meters large area of corbelled constructions along the Seine.

20 “Entertainments, restaurants, cafes, and numerous souvenirs shops were installed in the Vieux Paris and contributed to its animation. A small battalion of extras in costumes from ancient eras populated the concession.” Picard, Exposition universelle, vol. 7, 244.

21 On the Gazette: Christine A. Roth, “The Narrative Promise: Redesigning History in La Gazette du Vieux Paris,” CEA Critic 78 no. 1 (March 2016): 116-128; Patrice Carré, “Paris perdu, Paris mis en pages… En feuilletant la Gazette du Vieux Paris,” Le Téléphonoscope. Bulletin des amis d’Albert Robida 9 (2002), 19-21.

22 Cf. John Clute et al., “Robida, Albert,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute, Peter Nicholls, and David Langford, last modified January 4, 2019, accessed December 10, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/robida_albert; Dominique Lacaze, “Albert Robida, Explorer of the Twentieth Century,” part I, “Technical Innovation” and part II, “The Invention of a Society,” Futuribles 366 (2010): 61-70, and 367 (2010): 65-76.

23 Albert Robida, La guerre au vingtième siècle (Paris: Georges Decaux, 1887), this is a short, lavishingly illustrated novel in a stand-alone 51-pages volume; under the same title – “La guerre au vingtième siècle” – Robida published also a short story in La Caricature, 27 October 1883, 337-343.

This post is adapted from Giulia Iannuzzi, “The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come: Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the Long History of Imagined Warfare”, Cromohs – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography22 (2019): 95-136; par. “Exhibiting temporal hierarchizations”, pp. 105-110. Full text available in open access: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/11706.

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Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Exhibiting Temporal Hierarchizations," in Geographies of Time, 03/09/2020, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1480.

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