Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, or the World’s Fair of 1893

Lila Teeters

For my Clark Memorial Fellowship, I traveled to Chicago, Illinois in early August to study Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, or the World’s Fair of 1893. Before I boarded the plane, I had conducted research at Middlebury College and narrowed my topic down to studying the protests—specifically those made by a woman named Emma C. Sickles—of Department M, the Anthropology and Ethnology Department. Sickles, who worked as one of the Department’s associates, disagreed with the nature of Department’s representations of Native Americans and was subsequently fired by Frederick Ward Putnam, the chair of Department M. Infuriated, Sickles wrote a series of scathing editorials in The New York Times that lambasted Putnam and gathered the attention of a national audience.

After I had winnowed down my topic, it became clear to me that most of my research could be done online and at Harvard University, where Putnam’s papers are kept. However, what I could not research from home was how the Anthropology and Ethnology Department depicted Native Americans. True, there are numerous accounts of the Department, but these fail to capture the breadth of the items the Department secured for the Fair. Luckily for me, the contents of the Department were given over to the creation of a museum directly following the Fair’s closure. And that is how I ended up spending the majority of my time at the Chicago Field Museum. Here I researched what the Department showed, to which peoples they sent associates, and how the Department synthesized and reproduced this information to the general public. I spent much time looking at the tribal specificity the Department utilized and much more time evaluating the “sliding scale of humanity” (as one fairgoer called it) along which they placed these tribes. All of this information will become an integral part of my senior thesis.

Most interesting to me, however, was how the legacy of the Department’s ethnocentric evaluation of Indian tribes clearly influenced the ways in which the Field Museum today uses the objects from the Fair. The Museum is currently renovating its Native American cultures exhibits, with the bulk of the work completed. However, there are about three exhibit rooms that have not been updated, and posted signs warn museum-goers that the plaques surrounding items have not been updated since the turn to the 20th century (and, in some cases, since the conclusion of the Fair itself!) These labels, the Museum clarifies, “do not reflect the most recent knowledge of Native communities,” and it then assures the viewer that revisions are underway.

As for the parts of exhibit that have been integrated under the new umbrella gallery The Ancient Americas, the Museum aggressively works against the “sliding scale of humanity” Department M became so famous for. “The Ancient Americas is a story of diversity and change—not progress,” the opening signage for the exhibit pronounces, and one has to laugh a little when this is placed alongside the original purpose of the Fair’s anthropological exhibits: to show “the steps of progress and civilization and its arts in successive centuries, and in all lands up the present time.”[1] It was moments like these, when the Fair was being so blatantly addressed without being specifically named, that fascinated me on my visit. Department M’s creators and their views were being challenged in this exhibit, but literally, no plaque that I found directly addressed the racism that permeated the Fair and how the Museum was now using the same materials present at the Fair to deconstruct the very notions the Fair popularized. Overall, this visit allowed me to see how the Fair and the Fair’s ideas continue to affect today, and I will surely be using parts of my research into my final thesis.

Thank you to the History Department and especially the Fellowship’s committee for this amazing opportunity. Without your generous funding, I would have not been able to afford a trip to Chicago, and my thesis would have reflected that hole.

[1] This quote is from G. Brown Goode, who was instrumental in the beginning stages of acquisition for the Fair. Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at the American International Expositions, 1876–1916 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 45.