“Since the mid-19th century, convention centers have been identified with international commerce, the growth of trade, and the exchange of technology across geographic and cultural boundaries,” independent architect Barbara Hillier notes in her “Brief History of Convention Centers” in the October 2010 issue of Convene.
This has always been, and continues to be, true of convention centers and international exhibitions and conferences.
I was reminded of this idea when wandering through the Brooklyn Museum last weekend, and this writing desk caught my eye:
The plaque next to it explains that, “American interest in Japanese art and design, including bamboo furniture, was stimulated by goods exhibited by Japan at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.” Pieces like this writing desk — crafted out of yellow-stained maple and faux bamboo by American furniture-maker R.J. Horner — resulted from inspiration fostered at this major exhibition, the first official World’s Fair in the U.S. Conventions and exhibitions are a great way to trace the spread of ideas throughout history. Movements of all kinds spawn from live events: artistic, political, technological.
In Hillier’s “Brief History,” she discusses the Crystal Palace, describing it as the “most iconic example of the convention center.” Designed for the 1851 Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was a 990,000-square-foot conference center in London. “More than six million visitors and 14,000 exhibits insured the success of the exhibition,” Hillier writes. Profits helped build the Natural Science Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Victoria and Albert Museum of Fine Arts — expanding the exhibition’s impact even further.
Hillier also poses the question, “Can we imagine the future as more of the same? Even better?” with regard to the impact of convention centers and the exhibitions they house.
When I think of all the new conferences that spread ideas “across cultural and geographic boundaries” — for instance several endangered languages were revitalized at the inaugural Our Voices on the Air: Reaching New Audiences Through Indigenous Radio conference, and creative ideas abounded at the first-ever C2MTL — the answer to Hillier’s question is obvious: Yes. We can expect more, and we can always expect better.