Civilization began with the Mesopotamians. They used the rich soils between the Euphrates and Tigris to manage irrigation and agriculture, they invented the plough and the wheel. This provided the stability that allowed them to develop the first cities. Large numbers living in close proximity led to the invention and use of cuneiform writing, mathematics and they developed laws and religions.
They used astronomy to develop a concept of time, their sexagesimal numeral system is why we have 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and a circle of 360 degrees.
With few natural resources they became consummate traders, developing techniques for mapping, navigation and sailing. Interactions with other communities saw them develop chariots and warships.
Their successors, the Phoenicians, became powerful by establishing a series of Mediterranean trading colonies and by inter-trading to the east with other emerging civilizations.
The Silk Route extended trade routes eastward bringing products from India and China, India, Persia, Arabia and the Horn of Africa.
The first exhibition must therefore have been caravans of merchants, who would arrive outside towns and cities and set up displays of their wares, essentially an open-air marketplace. As these were established inside the town a distinction arose between many local food markets and one central area where durable goods, luxuries and money-changing would take place.
From the 6th century BCE, in Middle Eastern and north African regions, this sort of market became known as the souk (souq), initially located outside the city. Souk came down from the Akkadian šūqā meaning ‘street’ and including a sense of ‘narrow’, and the Aramaic sūqu meaning ‘street market’.
These markets moved into the city and become a commercial quarter often covered and enclosed. It kept the name souk or became a bāzār (bazaar), from the Persian.
A similar approach became formalised as agora in Greek cities and fora in Roman cities. These were early forms of exhibition too, displaying items for sale, exchange and barter. They were set-up alongside entertainments and religious festivals.
The Roman Empire used many sinews of power to keep its empire unified, for example specifying a calendar of religious festivals when the provinces should remember major deities and imperial family members (eg the feriale duranum). They were great believers in pursuing otium (leisure) as well as negotium (work), expecting governors and provincial elites to organise parades and entertainments, with buying and selling run alongside these religious festivals. The Latin word feria is the origin of today’s usage of ‘fair’ but its original meaning was ‘holy day’.
Roman generals’ triumphs into Rome exhibited the flora, fauna and the riches of the provinces and peoples they had conquered. Perhaps these were thus early, albeit mobile, exhibitions? These prompted cultural shifts, for example Rome under Augustus developed an Egyptomania that saw a magistrate build a pyramid tomb, and emperors erected obelisks.
The Romans spread the significance of cities around its western empire. Local elites were expected to run a regular series of events in their local amphitheatre, circus and theatre. Some of these would run for several days and assembled all levels of the local society, with seating clearly delineated by rank.
Perhaps these got closer to what we today think of as an exhibition.