That's a one word review of the Oregon History Museum's current exhibit “Centuries of Progress: American World's Fairs, 1853-1982” (running through February 3rd). To be fair, it wasn't designed by the Oregon Historical Society (the organization that's the brain of the museum). It's a pre-fab traveling display organized by Exhibits USA. On the other hand, when you go to your grandma's house to eat and she serves you a cardboard-crusted frozen pizza, do you blame Mama Celeste that your palate wasn't satisfied? No, you blame Grandma and her box of coupons. Come on OHS, you have archives. Use them. At least mention Oregon's own version of the fair.
Oh, the irony.
The central innovation of World's Fairs is how they turned science and technology into entertainment. The fairs were so into ramping up fun, they were the precursors to modern amusement parks! They were enthusiastically covered in newsreels! They practically invented the suffix “-orama.” (Ok, that last one may not be true.)
Centuries of Progress, while informative at times, is fatally boring. You can learn things, interesting things even. For example, the Ferris Wheel was invented when American engineers were challenged to design something for the 1893 Chicago fair on par with the Eiffel Tower. However, if you want to get at these nuggets you'll have to pry them from the hands of a cold, dead narrative—something akin to studying your school history text book (when you were still in high school). Imagine how my eyes lit up when I read that “By the 1890s, public amusements and attractions became as central to the visitors' experiences as educational opportunities.” zzzzzzzzzz.
More museum trashing after the break...
Rather than making museumgoers reflect on World's Fairs in light of today's strange cocktail of science, commercialism and popular culture (where would Apple Product launches be without Worlds Fairs?), the presentation seems antiquated and irrelevant. Nothing moves in the exhibit. There's a ring of posters hung around the wall and a few glass-covered islands containing objects like a model train, an early pair of pantyhose, and a thumb-sized book inside a walnut. A small roped-off area contains A Chair (evidencing “modern style”) and A Sewing Machine (it's old). With one exception, these objects did not “transport me” to the awe that fair-goers must have experienced. (That exception is a scale model of an 80-foot ferris wheel, built to look like a whitewall tire.)
- To all you kids who asked for Power Wheels for X-mas, think again
There are a couple cool videos you can play—one of film from 1904, whose choppiness makes the evolution from stills to moving images palpable, and a DuPont promo from the 1964-1965 New York fair called “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” in which white people in sweaters do the twist in the name of science. However, you have to break the icy silence of the room if you want to watch them. It feels wrong.
At first, I was tempted to say that this exhibit would be OK for children, who probably aren't very familiar with World's Fairs. A good introduction, perhaps. But then I realized: This exactly why so many kids grow up hating museums. (And shame on me.) Simplified is not a synonym for kid-friendly. The people who are mostly likely to get a kick out of this exhibit are the elderly. The museumificaiton of things that used to be commonplace (fair posters, tickets and advertisements) might seem novel to them, although less novel than Archie Bunker's chair at the Smithsonian.
I wish I'd spent the time at an antique store, imagining how old things I'd never seen before were once moving parts of another person's life.