A St. Louis Museum Revisits a Famous but Complex World’s Fair

This article is part of our Museums special section about how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more to see, do and feel.

In the final scene of the 1944 musical film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the Smith family, dressed in fancy attire, wanders the grounds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the 1904 World’s Fair. Daylight fades, the electric lights flash on and the group stops in its tracks.

“I can’t believe it,” Judy Garland, playing Esther Smith, says breathlessly. “Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”

A new exhibit about the fair opens here this month at the Missouri History Museum. It shines a light on the wonder and complexity of the seven-month spectacle, still a mythical, sometimes pinnacle moment in the minds of many St. Louisans.

As the exhibit explains, the fair was where a vendor might have created the ice cream cone, but it was also where vendors might not have served Black people.

It was where governments of more than 60 nations came together to show off artwork, furniture and marvels, including the Liberty Bell and two butter sculptures of President Theodore Roosevelt. But it was also where spectators gawked at more than 1,000 Filipinos who came to live on the grounds of a 47-acre reconstructed village known as the Philippine Reservation as part of a living exhibition.

It was where scientists and engineers showed off technology like electricity, the wireless telegraph and baby incubators. But it was also where up to 39 out of 43 babies on display in the incubator exhibit died because of unsafe conditions. It was new technology at the time. The exhibit was run by an inexperienced doctor, the babies got a poor diet and the incubators overheated, the museum explains.

The fair stories about the ice cream cone and the much-loved 264-foot Ferris wheel that was sent down from Chicago are good ones, said Jody Sowell, president and chief executive of the Missouri Historical Society, which runs the museum.

“But I am convinced that most visitors want the full story,” Sowell said. “They want both the triumphant side and the tragic side, and they can handle both. And in fact, they get suspicious when they think one side’s being left out.”

The fair was meant to celebrate progress — namely, the commemoration of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase that doubled the size of the country. The fair’s opening was delayed by a year in order to complete the large-scale preparations. The exhibition covered around 1,200 acres, about two square miles, more than half of which took over the western end of Forest Park.

The museum, now in the park, stands on the site of the fair entrance. The building, the first national monument to Thomas Jefferson, was constructed in 1913 using fair proceeds.

In 2022, in another reinterpretation of a complex story, the museum installed labels around the building lobby’s Jefferson statue, acknowledging that the Declaration of Independence author and former president enslaved more than 600 people and that his Louisiana Purchase (from France) ultimately stripped Native Americans of their ancestral lands.

One label asks, “Can we still be moved by Jefferson’s words but horrified by his actions?”

“That’s an answer that I could give you as a historian,” Sowell said. “Or I can say, ‘Let me tell you the story and then open this up to a dialogue and let you have this conversation.’”

The exhibit’s centerpiece, a massive, 3-D-printed map of the fairgrounds, shows off nearly 300 of the fair’s buildings and structures, most of which were meant to be temporary. Projectors bring the map to life with color and movement, showing tiny figures walking the grounds.

The map is meant to wow visitors. It’s also meant to help them orient themselves in space, time and thought.

Sharon Smith, the museum’s curator of civic and personal identity, found herself peering at the map to find the location of the fair’s re-enactments of the Anglo-Boer War, now known as the South African War. The war between Britain and two South African republics had ended two years before the fair opened, and some of its veterans staged battles twice daily for fairgoers who paid 50 cents (about $17.50 today) to watch.

“I’m looking at that model,” Smith said. “And I’m thinking, ‘That’s where that was.’” She said that she had heard of it but that “I never really examined it so deeply because we didn’t have to, or we didn’t choose to.”

Nearby hangs a print by the artist Ria Unson, whose great-grandfather Ramon Ochoa came from the Philippines as a teenager to work as a waiter and guide at the fair’s Philippine Reservation, also represented in the 3-D map.

The artwork is based on a photograph of her uncle, Ramon Unson, his grandfather’s namesake, and contains overlays of newspaper articles about the reservation. It’s her way of reclaiming the narrative, Ria Unson said.

“The fair is actually material evidence of when America chose to be an empire,” she said in an interview.

The Philippines had been colonized by the United States in 1898, and her great-grandfather served as an example of what a “civilized” Filipino could become, she said. He then went to school in Oswego, N.Y., northwest of Syracuse, and became Americanized by his experience. She grew up in the Philippines speaking American English and now lives in St. Louis.

“The past continues to impose itself on the present,” Unson said. “And we will be creating a certain kind of future because of who we are in the present.”

Linda Young Nance, who grew up in St. Louis, is the historian for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She helped the museum create a digital walking tour and video about the Black experience at the fair. The National Association of Colored Women had met in St. Louis for their convention in 1904 but boycotted the fair after several members were treated poorly there, even denied cups of water.

While Young Nance says the fair was wonderful and glorious in many ways, she worries that some people in St. Louis, which has a long history of racial division, won’t be prepared to hear a more complete story. But they may learn something, she said.

“So when they come, they get to learn the whole story about our city, and they also get to learn that we are a city that is at least working toward including everybody and stories of all of us that are here. If you don’t keep working toward equity, you’ll never get it.”

The exhibit dazzles with fair memorabilia: dozens of pieces of ruby red glassware like ones that still appear in local antiques shops, the clockworks from the fair’s giant floral clock and the desk of David R. Francis, a former mayor of St. Louis and governor of Missouri who was president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. He famously closed the fair with the words “Farewell, a long farewell to all thy splendor!” before throwing the switch to turn off the lights.

As for the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a beloved classic, the exhibit includes a movie poster and a screen playing clips, including the final scene.

It’s a movie Sowell loves, about a complex chapter that took place right here in St. Louis, a complex city he also loves.

“There are these great inspirational chapters in St. Louis’ history that can help us get more connected to this place and be more invested in its future,” he said. “We want to look back at the past, again from all of those perspectives, and understand that it’s important to never write a simple story of history.”

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