Exhibitions defined

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Art Exhibition

The word exhibition has many meanings, for example the Oxford English Dictionary (‘OED’) provides a whole raft of definitions, it talks of the provision or furnishing of something, the foundation of a grammar school, a pension or gift, a type of student grant, the administration of a remedy, the act of submitting for inspection and finally encompasses our subject as its sixth definition of the word:

‘exhibition, n.  6. A public display (of works of art, manufactured articles, natural productions, etc.); also, the place where the display is made. In early quotations often specifically the exhibition of pictures of the Royal Academy; now applied especially to those exhibitions on a large scale of which the ‘Great Exhibition’ held in London in 1851 was the first and typical example.’ (source: OED)

So for the OED an exhibition is both the act and the place of display. However, Getting Noticed will later challenge the OED’s claim that The Great Exhibition was the ‘first’ and will also question whether it was in fact particularly ‘typical’.

Wesemael, Architecture…

Pieter van Wesemael in his excellent Architecture of Instruction and Delight:  A Socio-historical Analysis of World Exhibitions as a Didactic Phenomenon (1798-1851-1970) references Hans Christian Andersen’s Dryad (1867) where a tree nymph visits an exhibition at the Champ de Mars in Paris. Van Wesemael believes the imagery of that short story captures the essence of early exhibitions quite viscerally. Exhibition visitors are ‘compelled to see it with their own eyes, hear it, even smell’ the exhibition. ‘They can lose themselves in a world of make-believe, where people cannot distinguish whether the surroundings are primarily educational, fascinating, entertaining, or merely fantastic and illusory’.

Van Wesemael talks of the ‘mesmerising of the exhibitions on the visitors’ appealing to ‘both the intellect of the spectator and to the need for dreams, beauty, and even amusement and deception’. He sees the exhibition as a ‘secluded universe’, that it is ‘ephemeral, despite the time, effort, money, and material invested’.

Van Wesemael also addresses the post-show impact, when he says visitors are ‘cruelly aroused amid desolate plains and ruins where the exhibition had once stood’. This seems to encapsulate exhibitions well, though his conclusion is somewhat harsh this doesn’t come close to expressing the ‘grief’ that the organiser experiences post-show.


We shall see that early expositions sought to conflate high and low culture, by presenting fine art and industry side-by-side, they used education, spectacle and entertainment to attract general audiences of gentry, trade and the general public. Their goals were often rooted in international competition, which was thought worthy enough, without focusing on profit or return-on-investment. This state or imperial brand-building was more a ‘look-at-us’ exercise within an impersonal, globalising, industrialising world. Nation-states built their reputations and espoused nationalist fervour around early international events.


Later exhibitions became much more pragmatic, their exhibitors less interested in funding spectacles or ephemera, but instead expecting to reach focused attendees, to have ‘marriage broking’ opportunities. Progressively the need to show a return on their investment became of key significance.

Across two volumes we will examine both sorts of exhibition, early state-motivated industrial and world fairs and the more recent professional and business events. Both presented notions, artefacts, artworks, crafts, equipment, products, processes, technologies and services but the audience and the objective became ever more focused. We will see that organisers that were essentially international, governmental and local authority, departments and agencies, became more frequently a trade or industry, society or association, or a professional body and subsequently became specialist organising companies. One-off, venues gave way to purpose-built halls and centres, supported by their own venue teams.

(Source: expocart.com)

The early events with their nation-state building goals most often focussed on international exhibitors and attendees, they routinely showcased imperial colonies, often at the non-PC level of human zoos.

The early exhibitions erected temporary facilities to house their events, though perhaps the high incidence of fires often made venues rather more temporary than had been planned. As custom-built venues for exhibitions and conferences were created the pressure was on to fill their annual calendars. Today events take place in exhibition and conference venues, in museums and art galleries, at studios and heritage centres, at hotels, agricultural showgrounds, sports and concert venues, parks, fields and beaches.

Modern events may appeal to audiences drawn from the local area, or consist of regional, national, international or global delegates and visitors. Exhibitions are no longer a case of ‘If you build it, they will come’ (a deliberate misquote from the movie Field of Dreams 1989). Instead they are carefully organised to attract a specific professional or trade group, or aimed at special interest groups, or have a broad appeal to the general public, or any mixture of these.


Today exhibitions are supported by a team of  contractors for marketing, website, social media and PR; seminar or conference organisation and speaker liaison; database management, ticketing, cashiers, registration and visitor research; travel and accommodation; stand, structural and production design; signage, graphics and riggers; health & safety and risk assessment; fire control and first aid; promotional and temporary staffing agencies; marking out, floor management, stewarding and security; car and truck marshalling and parking;  IT, AV and telecommunications supply and support; freight, logistics, drayage, storage and courier services; catering; insurance suppliers; interpreters, translators and signers for the deaf. Some of these may be in-house or supplied by the venue team, but most are outside contractors.

UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry has been running., since 2008, its Global Exhibition Barometer, as a bi-annual status report of exhibitions and maintains various other repeating research reviews. We need, for our purpose, to look at its December 2019 Global Economic Impact of Exhibitions which captured 2018 data, therefore before the COVID Pandemic cut a swathe through the industry. This states that there were approximately 32,000 exhibitions of larger than 5000 square metres (‘sqm’) in the world directly involving 303m visitors and nearly 5m exhibitors across more than 180 countries.

Exhibitions supported 1.3m direct jobs globally and generated $81.1bn of direct GDP and supported $197.5bn in total GDP. This made it the equivalent to the 56th largest economy globally, thus was larger than the economies of countries such as Hungary, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador. By any measure this makes exhibitions a major global business sector.

However, AUMA, the Association of the German Trade Fairs, said that in 2020, thanks to COVID, only 114 of the planned 355 major international, national and regional trade fairs were able to be held, representing business declines of around 72%!

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