Connecting Global Cities: World Expos

Apr 29, 2015 8:30:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.

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Sometimes, instead of people traveling around the world to visit global cities, those cities come to us.

One such example is a World's Fair where major countries and their principal cities descend into one place to showcase their latest innovations and their long-established cultures.

London hosted the first "universal" World's Fair way back in 1851 (Paris had some national industrial expositions before that) and it set a tradition that an iconic structure is built as a permanent reminder of the event. The first such structure was the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, but, sadly, it subsequently burned down; we can now see a model in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (a short walk from CAPA).

Photo: Original Crystal Palace via Wikimedia

Fortunately many other icons still survive. There is the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Atomium in Brussels and the Space Needle in Seattle, to name but a few. Nowadays, we call the events World Expos. The main ones are held every five years, and minor ones in between. The full Expos run for 6 months from May 1 to October 31.

Atome circus - Atomium - Brussels
Photo: Atomium, Brusself by Alain Wibert

What makes this post topical is that the latest World Expo is about to start on May 1, 2015 in Milano (Milan) in Italy. The previous one was held in China, in my Shanghai, in 2010. I went seven times while living there.

Photo: Shanghai Expo 2010's China Pavilion captured in a promotional movie by Colin Speakman

Over 180 countries set up temporary pavilions to show case their specialities, including some great cuisine, dancing, video shows and of course locals on site from each country. Smaller countries shared pavilions and there was even a UN Pavilion. Some major companies also built pavilions - CocaCola for example.

Expo 2015 Milan promotional at the Expo Digital Gallery of Expo 2012 Yeosu.
Photo: Promotion of upcoming Milan Expo the Expo Digital Gallery of Expo 2012 Yeosu by César Corona

China is keen to hand over to Italy efficiently and expects many citizens to visit Milan in the coming six months. They have established friendly, affordable visa policies and an Italian Centre, including a Visa Office, in Beijing's Sanlitun. The Milan Expo was also promoted in the Chinese capital's Wangfujing Street.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Beijing_Milano_Expo_2015_promoted_in_Beijings_Wangfujing_StreetPhoto: Milano Expo 2015 promoted in Beijing's Wangfujing Street by Colin Speakman

China has a traditional rivalry with Japan, as a previous Wold Expo in Osaka, in 1970, held the record attendance at around 64 million people. Shanghai charged past that to record around 73 million. Will Milan beat that? We have to wait and see.

Given the long history of World Expos, four of CAPA's global cities have held one in some form, not always the full six months, and another way nearby. Let's take a look.


In 1907, the current capital of Ireland held a World Expo when the city was then part of the country known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and before Irish Independence. It was known as the Irish International Expedition. It actually ran from May 4 to November 9, and attracted contributions from Canada, France and New Zealand among others and showcased motor cars, electric and gas lighting and machinery. A chance for CAPA Dublin students to visit Milan and compare.

Photo: Herbert Park today, showing bandstand and pond from the 1907 Exhibition via Wikimedia


This Renaissance City never actually held a World Expo, but it is in a country that has. Milan held one before in 1906, Turin in 1911 and Genoa in 1992. With fast trains, CAPA Florence students can easily visit Milan in the next six months - a great opportunity.

Photo: Milan Expo 2015 gates via Wikimedia


The UK's capital has held two World Expos, each running for roughly six months. The opening World's Fair, attracting 28 countries in 1851, was known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations and was followed, in 1862, by the International Exhibition. The latter attracted 36 countries and was held in the Kensington Exhibition Halls. Both reflected the role of the UK as the hotbed of the Industrial Revolution. London has not held a World Expo since. However with budget flights, CAPA London students can also readily visit Milan!

Photo: A stereoscopic view of the 1862 International Exhibition published by the London Stereoscopic Company via Wikimedia.


This was an epic World Expo in Shanghai, coming two year's after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The USA was the last major country to construct a pavilion as a result the challenges of raising finance. The Chinese authorities helped create basic pavilions for some countries while others invested in the usual temporary nature but creative structures. The China Pavilion was the iconic structure and now serves as the China Art Palace. Unusually, this Expo saw four permanent structures created by China, and a few temporary national pavilions have remained too. That is a new trend, but Shanghai had the space. Nevertheless, during the six months it was very crowded and often had three-hour lines to get into the popular pavilions.

Photo: Crowds throng the China Provinces Pavilion in 2010 by Colin Speakman


The Sydney Expo was held in 1879, and known as the Sydney International Exhibition. The invention of the elevator was showcased. It ran from September to April, reflecting Australia's summer season. It was the first such fair in the Southern Hemisphere and was followed by one in Melbourne in 1880. The timing allowed exhibitors to stay over for both fairs, though they are not regarded as full universal fairs; it was a long way to go in those days.

Photo: From the Sydney 1879 Expo at the Garden Palace via Wikimedia

Do you live in a city which has held a World Expo? If so, tell us on social media: #CAPAStudyAbroad.

Thanks Colin!

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Topics: Global Cities