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NOMA: When The World Came To The Fair

The New Orleans Museum of Art is opening an exhibit Friday of decorative items put on display at World’s Fairs. 

Think of a World’s Fair and images of monorails, futuristic architecture and unusual foods may come to mind. But back in the day, a World’s Fair was a showcase of commerce and art. The NOMA exhibit features works seen at fairs from 1851 to 1939. NOMA spokeswoman Lisa Rotondo-McCord strolled among the packing boxes to highlight what’s in store for visitors.

“There’s a very large silver vase called the Tennyson Vase that greets you when you walk into the exhibition, and it is just a marvel of silver craftsmanship," Rotondo-McCord said. "It tells the story of King Arthur, scenes from the life of King Arthur, including this amazing battle scene which is the first thing you see when you walk in the exhibition, and then the death of King Arthur is shown on the back. It’s incredibly elaborate, very ornate, the chain mail is sort of all individually crafted. So you can just imagine just the amount of labor and effort that went into this piece, and the expense that it engendered.” 

It’s from England and was made in 1857. In 1984, New Orleans hosted the last World’s Fair that included the participation of the United States. They’re mostly held in South America and Asia now as a showcase of new technology. They may seem a bit of a relic, a throwback to the days before the World Wide Web came into being.

“People will say now that the Internet is a World’s Fair. I mean, it’s the world’s marketplace, you want to see something great," Rotondo-McCord continued. "But in a World’s Fair environment wonderful things are selected for you. So if you Google something it’s a very democratic kind of process. The best of the best doesn’t necessarily pop up first at the head of the list. But in a World’s Fair each nation chose the best that they had to offer; the most innovative, the most technologically advanced, something that dealt with the natural resources of their country. So it was curated, essentially, for you.”    

Credit Private Collection, Courtesy of Sinai and Sons Ltd. London
Peacock vase, circa 1900.

Around the corner are delicate cast iron chairs — not something commonly associated with cast iron. A few exhibits later is a dressing table and stool made by Gorum in 1899 that one could imagine only in Hollywood.

The entire table and mirror frame are made from sterling silver.

McCord explained, “Everything is sterling silver. Yes. And we are fortunate enough to have patrons of the museum who have the scent bottles that were created for the table.”  

And people actually used the table.

"Many of these things — they were shown at the fairs, but they were meant to be purchased at the fairs," Rotondo-McCord said. 

In the final room are pieces of furniture and glassware that not only look like art, but versions of the sleek motifs are likely for sale today. It was 1939, the time of Art Deco, and the world was heading into war.

“It just seemed a logical stopping point," Rotondo-McCord said. "In the fairs that happened after that dealt more with sort of international trade or agricultural products or technological innovations. So they felt that this was sort of the classic era where the decorative arts really embodied the interests and the primary motivations behind the fairs — that these decorative arts were the last remaining manifestation of the fairs.” 

The exhibit includes about 200 items selected from the fairs starting in London in 1851 and ending at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  It’s open from Friday, April 12 through August 4.

Eileen is a news reporter and producer for WWNO. She researches, reports and produces the local daily news items. Eileen relocated to New Orleans in 2008 after working as a writer and producer with the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. for seven years.