What do the Eiffel Tower and Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway Have in Common?

CATEGORIES: February 2016

FRENCH 370xw. The Golden Age of French Culture: France goes to the World’s Fairs

This summer’s French 370 will use the World’s Fairs held in Paris as a cultural roadmap to showcase France’s global importance in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The course will start with some historical background to each event and examine the artistic and political decisions made for each Fair.  We will also study additional art movements and events taking place concurrently with the Fairs.  Among these extra topics are Impressionism, Art nouveau, and the coming of WWII.

I got the idea for this theme while teaching FR 476: Birth of a Modern Nation, our capstone civilization course for French majors.  Last year, I included a day on World’s Fairs and the students were really intrigued to learn more about this topic and several of them chose to do their final papers on the topic.  I realized that I could spend an entire semester on the idea, so when we decided to expand our online summer offerings in French, it seemed like a good match.  My background is in the history and culture of the long 19th century and I am comfortable designing a course that reflects the chaos and creativity of this period.  France’s World’s Fairs took place in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900, and 1937, providing us with a great lens through which to view French culture.  Due to the political upheaval taking place in France, the Fairs span the Second Empire, the numerous governments of the Third Republic, and lead us up to World War II.  Because of the devastation of WWI, no Fairs were held in France for more than a generation, so a 20th-century Fair is an interesting way to end the course as we look at how the country changed in those 37 years, while knowing that Europe was on the verge of yet more devastation.

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It’s been really fun gathering all of the images I’ll use for my online presentations.  Due to the timing of the Fairs, we can also follow lots of technological developments through the years.  Photography becomes more and more prevalent as the years go, allowing us an increasing glimpse into how the public really saw the events.  I’ve also been able to find some souvenirs, such as posters, playing cards, and luxury goods that people from all around the world took home to represent France.  I love the idea of exploring how these items were marketed by the French government and/or perceived by foreigners.

Although I already teach a course on Paris (FR 370: Paris between the Lines), we will discuss a bit the relationship between the capital and the World’s Fairs.  Parts of the city were transformed, usually on a temporary basis, into amazingly exotic locales for the length of the Fairs, which typically were hosted from May to November.

A few structures survive today, most famously the Eiffel Tower, but most of them were meant to be torn down after the events.  One of the most striking displays was done in 1900, when Russia staged a moving panorama of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  This exhibit featured three 70-foot railway cars which provided seating for the audience as the scenery scrolled by them.  I’m really looking forward to discussing these sorts of technological marvels and cultural posturing with the students as we work to understand both visitors’ and Frenchmen’s perceptions of the World’s Fairs as a “golden age” of French culture.

Dr. Deininger will offer this course in an asynchronous format this summer, from July 11 to August 5, 2016.