Roots: Forest Park’s 1904 World’s Fair holds complicated legacy

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There have been over 100 world’s fairs dating back to the 19th century. St. Louis hosted its own, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, in 1904 in what is now known as Forest Park. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition was a six month-long “fair” that was attended by nearly 20 million people.

While the 1904 World’s Fair was popular, and one of the few that have turned a profit, there were also some controversies, with the biggest being the fair’s human “exhibitions.” The 1904 World’s Fair was not the first to showcase a human display, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Robert Rydell, professor emeritus of history at Montana State University and a specialist in world’s fairs, explains that the United States had recently gained control over the Philippines at the time of the 1904 World’s Fair.

The statue of King Louis XIV stands outside the Saint Louis Art Museum. Photo by Vanessa Jones.

“There was controversy in the United States about what to do with the Philippines. Should the Philippines become part of the United States, should they be a colony? What is the United States doing there?” Rydell said. “The United States government responds by organizing a massive exhibit at the center of the fair called the Philippine Preservation … They transported 1,200 Filipinos to the fair and put them on exhibit.”

The notion of segregating by race and ethnicity wasn’t new to the world, and it wasn’t new to St. Louis.

“The entire landscape of St. Louis was determined by race,” Peter Kastor, a professor of history and American culture studies at Washington University, said. “One of the things they said the World’s Fair should do is enable visitors to see the world. One of the things the people planning the fair said is that there were these uncivilized cultures heading toward extinction and people needed to be able to see them. They were thinking primarily of the white visitors who needed to see Native Americans and also the peoples of this new American empire [the Filipinos].”

Also on display at the World’s Fair is the building that now houses the Saint Louis Art Museum.

“The building that we now know as the Saint Louis Art Museum was the Palace of Fine Arts in the 1904 World’s Fair. It was a building where nations from around the world brought pieces of art to be on display,” Adam Kloppe, a public historian for the Missouri History Museum, said.

The art museum sits upon Art Hill in Forest Park. According to Kloppe, the Palace of Fine Arts  was unique from others at the fair because it was built to be permanent to protect the art that was coming from around the world.

Visitors are welcomed to the art museum by a statue of St. Louis himself, which sits facing, which sits facing the Grand Basin at the base of Art Hill.

The original version of this statue, called the “Apotheosis of Saint Louis,” wasn’t meant to be permanent, Kloppe said. However, after its popularity grew while on display at the World’s Fair, St. Louis built a permanent replica out of bronze, which is the statue that remains there today. 

The Missouri History Museum is planning a new 1904 World’s Fair exhibit, for which Kloppe will serve as content lead. The re-imagined exhibit will highlight new items and narratives, as well provide some historical context with a more critical approach. The exhibition is expected to open in April 2024. 

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Brian Rubin
Staff Writer | + posts