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’.
Pieter van Wesemael in his excellent ‘Architecture of Instruction and Delight: A Socio-historical Analysis of World Exhibitions’ 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 the short story captures the essence of early exhibitions rather more 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’. He 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’. Van Wesemael sees the exhibition as a ‘secluded universe’, that it is ‘ephemeral, despite the time, effort, money, and material invested’. He also addresses the post-show impact, when he says visitors are ‘cruelly aroused amid desolate plains and ruins where the exhibition had once stood’. That 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 public. Their goals were often rooted in international competition, which was thought worthy enough without focussing on profit. 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 more pragmatic, their exhibitors seldom interested in funding spectacles or ephemera, but instead expected focused attendees, ‘marriage broking’ opportunities to meet with these and progressively the need to show a return on their investment became key.
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 more focused. We will see that organisers that had been international, governmental and local authority, departments and agencies became more frequently a society or association, a professional or trade body and subsequently became specialist organising companies and venue teams.
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.
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. 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 for 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 (2016), suggests that there are some 31,000 exhibitions larger than 500 square metres (‘sqm’) in the world each year with a rented exhibition space of 124million square metres; some 4.4m exhibitors participate and 260m visitors attend. There are some 1,200 venues that can offer 5,000 sqm or more of indoor exhibition space. Just fifteen countries provide 80% of that global indoor exhibition space (USA 21%, China 15%, Germany 10%, Italy 7%, France 6%, Spain 5%, Netherlands 3%, Brazil, Canada, Russia, Switzerland and UK each at 2%, Belgium, Mexico and Turkey each at 1%).
The Eventbrite Pulse Report (2016) suggests that the UK exhibition and trade fair sector was worth £19.2billion in terms of venue and destination direct spends, the top ten organisations turnover $3.5billion but much of this is earned overseas. The sector supports some 25,000 UK businesses, within which they estimate there are some 570,000 full-time equivalent employees, using 2010 data they suggest some 265,000 exhibitors spent £2.7billion on goods and services to participate in these events meeting with thirteen million visitors, 20% from outside the UK. They suggest there are 10,000 event venues (some quite small), that run 1.3million business events each year attracting some 85m visitors. They also reported a fast-growing outdoor events’ sector, running some 7,000 outdoor events ranging from major festivals to agricultural shows, sporting and charity events, small village and craft events.
By any measure this is a major business sector in the UK and globally.
1.2 Why exhibit?
Today, the exhibition genre has to compete with, or accommodate, a plethora of print and digital information and presentation of products and services. In theory an on-line presentation of, for example, automobiles can be comprehensive and objective from the comfort of your own environment. Hyundai, for one, heavily promoted its Click to Buy™ car purchase plan. But how many of us would be prepared to proceed without a test drive? Research at Oklahoma State University suggests that sight processes some 83% of what we perceive, 11% is via our hearing, 3.5% our sense of smell, 1.5% touch and 0.5% taste. This would appear to support the notion behind Hyundai’s website, a policy of show them and they will buy.
The relatively low percentage for hearing is quite disappointing and is why teachers and presenters, no matter how talented a speaker, should use visual aids. The high percentage for sight is not quite so surprising when you consider that reading is a sight-based activity too. We are bombarded by visual stimuli but routinely learn not to pay any attention to much of what we see. Our interests, self-interests and moods tend to determine what we notice and what we ignore.
Our perceptions, often semi-automatic, are in fact each unique to us. No-one else experiences an event entirely from our point of view, either in terms of our physical visual location or how our mind responds to it internally. How we receive these perceptions is modified by our assembled set of past experience and comprehension. It matters too whether it managed to capture our full attention. Just a quick look at eye-witness reports of an incident or accident underlines this as being the case, they are at odds and that’s before any witness motivations and prejudices are taken in to account.
Our perceptions are not only unique to us, there are those who suggest that our thoughts are all that we can logically believe and trust in. This is the philosophic notion of solipsism, that we can only truly know and believe in our own existence (from solus [alone] and ipse [self]).
However. in fact we don’t see with our eyes, we see with our mind. This is where the Hyundai notion should fail. Assessing a new car is about the look and smell of the internal details, the noise of the door closing, the feel of the seat, the touch of the steering and brakes, the sound of the engine… This plethora of sensations during a test drive coalesces into a decision – not to forget the price and trade-out deal! No on-line picture or video can replicate that. Perhaps soon virtual reality may try, but that will still require you to visit a suitable device, and will you trust it without a physical drive?
That is a long-winded way of demonstrating that the experience of a live exhibition is preferable to a catalogue – print or digital. At an exhibition we can view competitive products and services, initially without being identified so that we are not subsequently harassed. The exhibitors should have stage-managed their presentation so that we can experience their product or service in action, with everything on hand for us to make a judgement. We can assess the relative skills and approach of competitive suppliers. We can collect printed material for reference, we might access their website before and after this face-to-face encounter. We experience them holistically, in the round, personally. This multi-sensory encounter is processed by our mind.
Volume 1 will look at almost one hundred events held across the century between 1760-1860 to seek to understand something of their objectives, processes and outcomes. These were held a quarter of a millennium ago and yet their issues and approaches reveal that the challenges to those pioneering event managers were much the same as those faced today.