Media and the history of political rhetoric

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My grandmother often talked about the Baltic Exhibition with great awe, an event which occurred about a hundred years ago and became one of the major historical events in modern time for Malmö. So how can we understand the time and context? Well, at the end of the 19th century it became popular to host world fairs, where the purpose was mainly to advertise industry and trade products. But the fairs also had other purposes, such as educating the audience in the latest technical developments, and to boost patriotism in promoting the country or region’s superiority. They would also attract tourists and visitors, putting the city and locale “on the map”. The cultural historian Alexander Geppert calls these world fairs “the most spectacular mass medium of the urban imagination in fin-de-siècle Europe” and “a defining feature of modernity”.

Malmö had been a growing industrial city and in 1914 it was recognized as one of the European big cities since it was calculated this year to pass 100 000 inhabitants, less than half of Copenhagen’s number, and there were of course interests in promoting this occasion and expansive region. At the time, the Swedish industry hadn’t been able to quite bounce back from the world economy fall in 1905 and most likely partly because of this the trade industry organization in Malmö initiated the exhibition (Christenson 1989). However there was a rivalry with Stockholm in promoting this Swedish big city, and northern companies and interests were very cool in attention, pointing to a “exhibition fatigue” and that if a Swedish trade fair should be produced, it should be in the nation’s capital. This might be a reason for the theme became the Baltic region, something clearly more given to be held in Malmö which was in the center, so they included the Baltic sea nations at that time meaning Denmark, Germany and Russia, where the visitors would get to see and experience the latest within industry, technology as well as arts and craft. They formed a committee which gave the title “head architect” to Ferdinand Boberg, responsible for the formation of the exhibition, which had been responsible for two Stockholm fairs and also for several Swedish pavilions internationally, however here the departing point for the buildings was the regional tradition of Scanian medieval churches with their whitewashed stepped gables, so the focus was more regional than national. The area was called the “white summer city” thanks to these white buildings and with reference to previous fairs in Chicago and Stockholm with the same color theme and name, and this description seemed to influence female visitors in that many of them came dressed in white clothing. One of the main symbols of the exhibition was the exhibition tower, supposedly the highest wooden construction in the world at that time, this record tower became through posters the main symbol of the exhibition in general.

This focus on a record was typical of the world fairs promotion and a comparative theme was also their fleeting nature, in that they were built for temporary use and to be demolished after the event’s closure, which was also the case with the Baltic exhibitions most features. However the park Pildammsparken built for hosting the area is still used today, with another item in its original location, the Margareta pavilion and its lane of flowers, a pavilion created together with the current crown princess, which was a groundbreaking thing at the time, collaborating with a royal, being able to add a famous name in promoting the exhibition.

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But not just the exhibition spot was affected by the event. The fair also had a great effect on the city and its inhabitants, in that many parts of the city were built or remodeled, to show visitors what a modern city Malmö had become. Streets leading from the train station to the exhibition were widened to give the expression of magnificent avenues. Plantations were made to create walking lanes along the canals as well as parks, and also the transport system was majorly developed in the approaching roads that were built as well as the tram-system. Many of these streets are still used today and are well-known symbols of the city.

The professor of history of science and ideas, Anders Ekström, has done research on the sociality of world fairs and their amusement areas. The idea of amusement at this time to some was a positive development in that it attracted more visitors, while some skeptics argued it would take the focus away from the important elements of the fairs. The amusement areas were however popular among many visitors, and was also something that developed the perspective on public and private, in how visitors became participants and were performing in the public something that would have been considered private in the past, for instance in open-air dance pavilions. Ekström writes:

“[…] visitors considered the dance pavilions socially progressive and argued that the amusement area as a whole led to greater democratization of public space.”

(Ekström 2011 p.21)

If we look at the Baltic exhibition we can find this entertainment idea here as well, in an amusement area with a movie theater, dance pavilion and a roller-coaster which was available for visitors, and actually this roller-coaster is still being used at Tivoli in Copenhagen, Rutschebanen. We could compare the visitor using the amusement area to the idea of today’s prod-user, in how the participants and on-lookers helped form the meaning of the roller-coaster, without users it would have lost its meaning, it wouldn’t have been an amusement. We can also see how the so called “low” culture came closer to the “high” culture, in that the amusement area was included in the fair but still had to be separated to the more proper informative area, for instance as being called just that “amusement area”, to have its own department and title.

With Ekströms theory we can see how the fair was a form of social media, in that it influenced and was used by the visitors and inhabitants, not just on spot but also in the city life in all building and plantation going on, as well as cultural life and sport: for instance The Baltic Exhibition Waltz was created, but also unofficial music such as the chorus show song “Baltirullan” where a farmer sings about his chaotic visit to the Baltic Exhibition, and we can also find the exhibition in literature. At the same time of the exhibition, the city arranged the Baltic games, as well as an engineer conference and agriculture conference. And the first official historical representation of Malmö as a city was published, both towards visitors but also targeted towards inhabitants in forming their identity. There were also souvenirs created at the exhibition, representing for the individual the visit and participation in this memorable and important event, as well as showing to others that you had been there. Some later turned into collector’s items. And of course there was the use of the press taking pictures and writing about the exhibition and its visitors as well as film documenting the area while visitors are experiencing the display.

Using Jowett and O’Donnells model of analyzing propaganda, I would mark this as white propaganda in that there was clear purpose based of specific interests, the source was clear and the information displayed to the visitors accurate, but of course they chose to highlight certain aspects of the region before other aspects, as well as actually changing the city for it to appear more attractive than it had been previously. The exhibition in general of course articulated and spread a specific perspective with its ideas and attitudes, especially about modernity. The exhibition’s ideology was promoted by defining a certain bourgeois and urban perspective on the industry culture’s advancement which the audience should adapt. It was meant to educate on an informative sense based on this ideology, but as well work as social rooms where citizens could learn how to behave socially.

The exhibition might not be a good representation of society at that time in detail but should probably be seen more as a front, if we think about its rhetoric of welcome speeches, cutting ribbons, technical performances, as well as the representations in the press, they were very unlike the reality outside of the exhibition area. In the city, this big industry had open up for a growing workers movement and political tensions. But it does echo tendencies of the time in ideas and sociality. Considering the exhibition was discontinued with the outbreak of war, we might see it as a method of gathering the citizens, helping them see past this storm cloud. It was a time of increasing mobility, we can see this for instance in how the exhibition allowed different social classes to more closely interact in public. With the outbreak of World War I, we can in retrospect realize how strong these same forces of demonstrating a strong nation could be, in addition to being destructive.

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The Baltic Exhibition as a social medium

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