Fleeting Cities

Fleeting Cities, Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siecle Europe by Alexander C.T.Geppert. Published in the Exhibition Study Group Journal No.114, p30-31, Autumn 2014. 

Fleeting cities, Imperial Expositions in Fin-de-Siecle Europe

Alexander C.T.Geppert

Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, paperback 2013.

A Book Review by Matthew Denney

For the Exhibition Study Group

The recent paperback edition of Fleeting Cities by Alexander Geppert makes a welcome addition to the current literature on exhibition history. Although there has been some publishing in recent years this is still a surprisingly under published area of history and a field that still has a tremendous variety and scope to offer the historian working in many varied fields. The readers of this journal will not need convincing of this.

Geppert’s book is based closely on his PhD dissertation ‘London vs. Paris: Imperial Exhibitions, Transitory Spaces, and Metropolitan Networks, 1880-1930’ which was submitted at the European University Institute in Florence. Consequently it is an unapologetically academic work, of the 400 pages 150 are given to supporting material, and the structure of introduction/ methodology/ historiography/ justification/ case studies/ conclusion is a familiar one. PhD dissertations do not always make the most engaging of books, and if a sentence such as:

Thus, the book combines empirical research with an underlying interest in large theoretical issues in order to explore the possibilities of a relational historiography that is simultaneously open to multiple perspectives and considers mutual influences, perceptual interdependencies and transitional interrelations in a new form of network analysis.

leaves you cold, then the introduction and conclusion at the very least may not be for you.

The research that underpins this volume is most impressive, Geppert brings a European perspective to his work and has worked in archives and libraries in many countries. His apparent ease in a number of different languages has enabled him to take a far reaching overview of the subject, and his analysis and insights benefit from this. The bibliography is as exhaustive an exhibitions based bibliography for the period in question as could be hoped for, and this, together with the list of exhibitions and biographies in the appendicies make this a valuable research tool for all students of exhibition history.

The case studies lie at the heart of this book, in these five chapters Geppert considers specific exhibitions: Berlin 1896, Paris 1900, London 1908, Wembley 1924 and Vincennes 1931. This approach allows a researcher to successfully focus a study in what is otherwise an unfeasibly large area of history, it may however leave a reader wishing for a wider field of reference, and specific aspects and relationships with other exhibitions that have not been included might leave the reader with unanswered questions. Fortunately Geppert works hard to limit the shortcomings of this approach and shows a convincing knowledge of many others exhibitions that are not considered in detail, consequently the reader is seldom unconvinced by the arguments presented.

Of the case studies, the first for the Berlin 1896 exhibition was the least familiar to me, and the national nature of this event and the relatively small scale on which it was presented leads one to question its inclusion. The well referenced consideration of why Germany did not play a more confident role in the history of 19th century exhibitions is both interesting and surprising, and the national rather than international exhibition is presented as a reflection of Berlin and even the nation’s lack of confidence on the global stage.

With the Paris Exhibition of 1900 we are on far more familiar ground, and the city is well portrayed as having an abundant confidence and a sense of place as the ‘City of Expositions’.  Geppert introduces the notion of ‘Clou’ within an event and suggests Paris comes as close as any city to taking full ownership of the notion of the home of exhibitions. 1908 and the Great White City offer a different approach with the exhibition as a commercial venture with wider overtones of a civilizing event which might have had some impact on deteriorating European relationships. Kiralfy went as far as to suggest the possibility of an Anglo-German exhibition in 1916, history took a different path. Wembley exemplifies the displays of ‘Empire’ and the surprising, and very welcome discussion of the 1931 ‘Exposition Coloniale’ that suggest this is a medium in decline.

The case studies are interestingly written and are the most accessible part of this book, their length means there are many aspects that are omitted from discussion. Few specific exhibits are mentioned, architectural discussion is brief and stylistic developments are not considered. This is a volume far more concerned with current theoretical readings of exhibitions and contemporary responses, in particular ‘exhibition fatigue’, and interestingly ‘exhibition swindle’.

With nearly enough interesting and informative illustrations, including eight in colour, this is a welcome addition to the literature. With well reasoned and informative argument around certain aspects of a number of familiar and some rather less familiar events, this work has much recommend it. The impressive bibliography and the extensive footnotes have much to offer the student of exhibitions, and if the language is a little confused and the argument slightly convoluted at times it rewards the persistent reader with interesting and though provoking insights and information. The work is all the more impressive in not being written in Geppert’s own native German and for this alone he should take much credit.