NOMA displays decorative arts from World’s Fairs

Some items haven’t been seen since they were exhibited in 1876, when the World’s Fair first came to American soil.

New York served as the host city, and the fair celebrated the country’s centennial.

The United States was young — very young. And there it was, hosting a World Exposition, where visitors are introduced to the future.

There was a time when world’s fairs were the most important vehicles for debuting technological and stylistic advancements on an international stage, functioning as showcases and marketplaces for design on a global, national and individual level.

They also democratized design, and because of the fairs’ impermanence, decorative arts sometimes are the only surviving elements.

“And the United States wanted to show that it could run with the big dogs,” Anne Roberts said.

She’s the project curatorial manager at the New Orleans Museum of Art, which is showing the exhibit, Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 through Sunday, Aug. 4.

Some 200 objects make up this exhibition, most of which were actually exhibited at World’s Fairs, beginning with the London exhibition in 1851 and ending with the 1939 New York fair. The show was co-curated by Catherine L. Futter, curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Mo.; and Jason T. Busch, curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

“The Carnegie Institute traveled around the United States and Europe gathering these objects that were actually shown. Some of these pieces haven’t been seen since they were introduced at the fair,” Roberts said.

But now they’re at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where visitors can walk a path of progress.

“Visitors can move chronologically through time in this show,” Roberts said.

And visitors can’t help noticing the massive Bulkley and Herter Gothic Revival bookcase along the way. The piece was created between 1852 and 1853 and takes on a European cathedral design.

Aside from the design, the bookcase is all-American, created from American materials by an American craftsman. This was one of the pieces featured in the 1876 World’s Fair in New York — the piece that showed the young country could keep up with its elders.

But again, this exhibit focuses on the international stage, offering everything from metalwork to glass to jewelry by Cartier and Tiffany, all introduced at the fairs.

Two of the most noted objects on this time journey are a papier mache piano and a Japanese screen.

The piano is backed by aluminium, which was more valuable than gold when the instrument was created.

“The cost of mining aluminum was more expensive,” Roberts said. “Now when we think of aluminum, we think of aluminum foil that we just throw away.”

The Japanese screen was displayed at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939. It features a realistic rendering of a wave pattern in 450 hand-embroidered colors.

The screen was stored in an attic until purchased by the Carnegie Museum. Now it’s displayed in New Orleans, which ran with the big dogs with its own World’s Fair in 1984.