I’m not ashamed to say that my first experience with the phenomenon of World’s Fairs was through Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 musical blockbuster Meet Me in St. Louis.* It was one of the few VHS tapes in my childhood babysitter’s house – consequently I’ve seen it so many times I’ve lost count. So when I came across a reference earlier this year to the Egyptian archaeology display at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (aka the St. Louis World’s Fair) it’s hardly surprising that Judy Garland’s “Trolley Song” sprung almost immediately to mind.
Said reference was in artist and Egyptologist Annie Pirie Quibell's obituary – I was then writing a brief biographical sketch on her for the Trowelblazers website. It was an added bonus when, a few months later, I came across another St. Louis World’s Fair connection in the Palestine Exploration Fund's archive: three grand prize certificates awarded to the Fund by the Fair’s judges. I’ve been researching temporary archaeological exhibitions in the late 19th/early 20th centuries for the past few years, so my interest was piqued.
As it happens, it’s the 110th anniversary of the St. Louis World’s Fair this year, so exploring the Fair’s connections to British archaeology seems timely. Additionally, recent controversy over the proposed sale of Egyptian antiquities by the American Institute of Archaeology's St Louis branch highlights another more troubling dimension of the city's relationship with British archaeology – one that draws past and present more closely together.
The St. Louis World’s Fair opened on 30 April 1904 after an extensive period of preparation. For an admission fee (50¢ for adults; 25¢ for children under 12) World’s Fair visitors could access the buildings and sites of the Fair’s sixteen Departments displaying items from over forty countries. In addition, “the Pike” contained individually priced attractions: recreations of historical events, foreign cities (including Cairo and Jerusalem) or sights – picture, if you will, a mini-Vegas before Vegas.
There were two main locations for viewing archaeology in the Fair. The first and most extensive was in the Department of Anthropology, a wing of the Fair’s Administration building. The Egyptian archaeology display sat alongside other archaeology exhibits from the United States, Brazil and Mexico on the "Main Floor" of the Anthropology building. Britain had occupied Egypt since 1882; as a result of its role, a British Commissioner, long-term Cairo resident and businessman Herman Lawford, led Egypt’s World’s Fair representatives. James Edward Quibell, one of the British Inspectors of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, was responsible for coordinating and arranging the archaeology exhibit.
The materials for the display were transported in 142 cases that arrived in St Louis at the end of February 1904. These were distributed into Rooms 100 and 101 of the Anthropology Department – at the expense, the St Louis Republic reported – of the ‘telephone girls’ whose offices were requisitioned to house the larger-than-expected array of ancient Egyptian material.
J. E. Quibell and his wife Annie Quibell travelled from their home in Egypt to St Louis to install the display. Both of them were credited in the Fair’s Official Catalogue for their work. By far the most popular attractions of the Egypt display were the recreated tomb of 'Rakapu' and the three life-sized dioramas. In an extensive illustrated article published in March 1904, the St Louis Republic highlighted these ancient Egyptian ‘scenes'. Populated by Paris-made plaster casts of human figures adorned with the ornaments of the ancients and swathed in a combination of ancient and ‘modern’ textiles, the 'scenes' also contained real (ancient) tools and implements. The stones of Rakapu’s tomb were imported to St Louis and reconstructed in the exhibition, enabling visitors to walk into the tomb and view its interior inscriptions. The rest of the antiquities, including mummies and coffins, beads, pottery, glass and ushabtis were arranged in cases and labelled.
Across the acreage of the Fair from the Anthropology building was the Palace of Liberal Arts. Great Britain's substantial exhibit there emphasised its innovative role in geography and topography. Three archaeological collectives were among the organisitions illustrating British prowess: the Palestine Exploration Fund, supporting exploration and excavations in the Holy Land; the Egypt Exploration Fund, supporting excavations in Egypt; and the Cretan Exploration Fund, supporting Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos. By this time American branches or local secretaries were partially supporting both the Palestine and Egypt Exploration Funds.
Fast forward just over a century, and St Louis is back in the archaeological news. Earlier this month, the Archaeological Institute of America's St Louis branch (known as the St Louis Society, and established in 1906) was planning to sell Egyptian artefacts from its collection at the auction house Bonhams. These artefacts had been allocated to the Society in 1914 in return for financial support for archaeologist Flinders Petrie’s British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
A recent statement from Egypt Exploration Society (formerly Fund)’s Director Chris Naunton and Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology curator Alice Stevenson highlights that the artefacts selected for sale were given with the explicit caveat that they should remain accessible to the public in a museum. The sale of these objects at Bonhams would have opened them up to purchase for a private (inaccessible) collection. The date of the sale was set for 2 October, but at the last moment it was announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had acquired the objects. The Archaeological Institute of America has now issued a statement condemning the St Louis Society's decision to put the antiquities up for sale.
As Chris Naunton has noted, the news of this sale draws attention to the relevance of the history of archaeology today. A new collaborative project, Artefacts of Excavation, co-led by Alice Stevenson, will be investigating the distribution of artefacts from British excavations in Egypt to museums and collections across the globe. Of more direct relevance to this post, however, is the role of Anglo-American relations in this history.
The World’s Fair brought the fruits of British archaeology in Egypt, the Holy Land and the Eastern Mediterranean, both physical and intellectual, to a wider public. It also reflected Western authorities' control over Egypt’s antiquities – a control that continues to have significant implications for collections today. This power is no more potently expressed than in the words of Frederick J. V. Skiff, the World Fair’s Director of Exhibits:
A modern Universal Exposition well might be called an encyclopedia of society, as it contains, in highly specialized array, society’s words and works. It is a collection of the wisdom and achievements of the world, brought together for the inspection of the world – for examination and study by its experts.” -Preface to the Official Catalogue (1904)
Committee on Press and Publicity, Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission. 1904. Official Catalogue of Exhibitors, Universal Exposition St Louis, U. S. A. 1904. Missouri: St Louis.
Hallote, R. 2006. Bible, Map, and Spade: The American Palestine Exploration Society, Frederick Jones Bliss, and the Forgotten Story of Early American Biblical Archaeology. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.
Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission. 1906. Final Report of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Luckhurst, R. 2012. The Mummy's Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Official Guide Company. 1904. World’s Fair Authentic Guide. Missouri: St Louis.
Parezo, N. & Fowler, D. 2007. Anthropology Goes to the Fair: The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Reid, D. 2002. Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War One. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Small, J. 1904. Egyptian Tomb Brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair. Galveston News Magazine Supplement, 22 May.
Spencer, P. 2007. The Egypt Exploration Society: The Early Years. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
The St Louis Republic. 1903. Egypt’s Representative Here. Site for Building to be Selected and Exhibit Space Secured. [Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers], 25 June.
The St Louis Republic. 1904. Cat of Bubastis Arrives. Sacred to Ancient Egyptians, it was Embalmed 9,000 years ago. [Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers], 27 February.
*Minnelli's Meet Me in St Louis is not actually about the World’s Fair; rather it follows the Smith family through the year leading up to the Fair as the city prepares itself for the grand opening.