UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2000
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Imagining the Pan-American Exposition

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PAN AM 2001


Pan-American Exposition 1901

The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

The White House Millennium Council


lternating current was about as old in 1901 as the Internet is now," Frisch notes. "Everybody knew that electricity was profoundly changing everything in the world, but it wasn't entirely clear yet how or with what implications. It's exactly where we stand now."

Pan Am
Visitors to the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 were drawn to the predominating Electric Tower, center.
    "It's a great celebration of 1901," says College of Arts and Sciences dean Kerry S. Grant, the leading force behind UB's contribution to Pan-Am 2001, and himself a student of Pan-Am history and collector of Pan-Am artifacts. "It represents a time when Buffalo felt supremely optimistic and had pulled itself together as a community with the understanding that it was a major city, with the capacity to do even more. It needed to present itself to the world in that way."

    World's fairs and expositions were the medium of choice for spreading that message in 1901. And the message is equally relevant today.

Pan Am
Virtual Pan-American Exposition
Virtual Views of the Electric Tower, centerpiece of the 1901 fair, and the main entrance to the exposition on what is now Lincoln Parkway.
    "This celebration offers us a framework in which to say we had a vision of ourselves in this way, what's our vision now?" says Grant. "Can we muster these many community conversations, which have been quite spread out, and come to some real conclusions about what we want to be and how we're going to get there?"

    Grant attributes his interest in the Pan-Am to UB professor of history and American studies Michael Frisch, who has been a key player at every stage of the 2001 project.

    "We felt, from the beginning, that not only could the region be using this frame to do a lot of what it does anyway, but, in a laser-like way, we could use the frame to focus on some themes that add up to something," Frisch says. "You could then develop a few signature events, achieve critical mass, and have, in effect, the equivalent of a world's fair without having to build pavilions ... precisely because we have a platform that's addressing, on an international scale, ideas that matter."

    The virtual model project received an important boost last September, when UB, with its community partners WNED-TV and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, became one of only seven universities nationwide to receive a prestigious Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (WWNFF) grant. The grants, administered under the auspices of the White House Millennium Council's "Imagining America" program, are intended to recognize examples of public scholarship that involve campus and community leaders in addressing issues of cultural or social significance.

    The Pan-Am 2001 celebration is itself a model for how Western New York can make the most of its diverse yet uncoordinated cultural and economic assets, an aspect of the project that is not lost on the administrators of the WWNFF grant, whose mission is "to encourage greater participation between the academy and other sectors of society."

    A wide spectrum of community-wide conferences, meetings and seminars are planned for the next two years under the Pan-Am 2001 umbrella. They range from a series of public seminars treating themes of the Pan-Am at the Historical Society (which UB students can also take for credit) to a hemispheric leadership conference in May of 2001 sponsored by the Women's Pavilion, to a major Teddy Roosevelt exhibit and conference at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site coproduced by Canisius College, to the "Borders of the Americas" conference at UB scheduled for March, among many other events.

    UB's intercommunity efforts are being coordinated by Michele Gallant, who previously held positions with the Historical Society and the State University College at Buffalo (Buffalo State College). What she would like to create is a lasting framework for cooperation, "beyond the moment," between existing cultural institutions and other entities that have a stake in Western New York's future.

    "People are hungry for information on Buffalo history," she says. "There is a tremendous potential for the growth of this kind of collaboration based on demonstrated interest."

    World's fairs were "very unusual public spaces" to begin with, Michael Frisch adds. Through them, communities addressed contemporary themes on many levels, including the intellectual, the cultural, the political and the economic.

    "The more you look at it, the more you see that all the themes of Pan-Am are unbelievably resonant with things now, not just in Buffalo, but in general," he says.

    "Pan-Americanism" was all about the international order, and debates over "imperialism" and "neoimperialism" are today's debates about "globalization" and NAFTA. The way in which non-European peoples were represented at the Pan-Am provides a reference point for looking at the state of race relations today; how far we have-or haven't-come in 100 years.

    "The world's fair is a space for those negotiations," Frisch says. "In a curious way ... these environments were like cyberspace. It's a postmodern, nonlinear environment that people ricochet around in-you bounce in and you bounce out-you're on the midway taking a ride to the moon, and then you're looking at Egyptian dancing girls and potted palms from Chile, and so forth. It's not a terribly coherent environment in the usual sense, and it's certainly not didactic."

    In fact, the fair's temporary buildings and 240,000 lightbulbs were just about as ephemeral as electrons coursing through a microchip.

    "The major signifier of Pan-Am was electricity and its transformative power, which was announced to the world ... in a really unprecedentedly dramatic way," says Frisch.

    Electricity was not new at the time of the Pan-Am, Kerry Grant points out, but "it was the ability to control electric light and use it to artistic effect that marked the distinctiveness of the exposition ... the mastery of electricity was its key point."

    "Alternating current was about as old in 1901 as the Internet is now," Frisch notes. "Everybody knew that electricity was profoundly changing everything in the world, but it wasn't entirely clear yet how or with what implications. It's exactly where we stand now."

    Enter Debra and David More of Azar & More Inc., partners with former TV sports anchor Rick Azar in a local multimedia firm that produces data visualization, 3-D modeling and animation. The firm recently completed a video for the state Department of Transportation that showed three alternatives for the proposed widening of Route 219 in the Southtowns for a public hearing, before any backhoe or bulldozer had even touched the ground.

    "Deb puts a face on things that people try to articulate with words," says Jesse Fabian, a collaborator with the Mores on that project and on the Pan-Am model.

    She is also a lecturer in UB's media studies department and, together with Fabian, led a team of students in an intensive seminar last summer laying the groundwork for the virtual fair.

    "The idea is to create a collaborative space," says Fabian, "an interactive book that you drive through instead of read through."

    History students are gathering information on the original Pan-Am to guide the reconstruction, and digital arts students are assisting in accurate renderings of the grounds and buildings. An important aspect of the Pan-Am that has often been overlooked was its sophisticated color scheme. One of the exposition's main themes was "Civilization's Progress," and the color of the buildings was carefully planned to represent the progression from what was considered the more rustic and "barbarous" tones of the ethnology exhibits, to more subtle and refined colors as one moved through the grounds.

    All extant photographs and film footage of the Pan-Am (including about 40 minutes shot by Thomas Edison) are in black and white. Approximately 50 color drawings, paintings and lithographs by architects and artists who were present at the exposition do exist, however. Researchers are using all of these resources to recreate as accurate a rendering of the whole effect as possible.

    The next goal the team has in mind is production of a national PBS documentary, in partnership with the Historical Society and WNED-TV, that would include fly-throughs of the virtual model. As of this writing, the model is a work-in-progress; as Debra More puts it, "working sketches toward a masterpiece." But already students have created the central layout of the grounds, and most buildings have been roughed out. Currently, they're bringing the Temple of Music to a finished state for use in a pilot to generate more interest, and more funding, for the finished piece.

    Frisch sees great potential for the model. "We're also talking about outputting it to the schools, into a CD-ROM/DVD environment, where you could bring in other kinds of primary material or interactive elements. At the far end of that spectrum-in some ways, the most exciting, most futuristic aspect, but also potentially where the most support might be-would be the notion of an interactive theatrical experience, where you could go into a big room, in a virtual reality sense, and explore the exposition."

    That element of "immersive reality" could provide the basis for a new approach to documentary.

    "We want to include 21st-century issues and mind-blowing technology as people today explore the exposition buildings, grounds, and midway through our model, because that's exactly what people experienced in 1901-encounters with the unknown, the exotic, and the technological future. So, in a sense, it is more historically accurate to replicate the experience rather than simply to recreate the exhibit pavilions and the midway concessions exactly as they were.

    "I've been interested, in my own work, in how you leverage history, how you make it a tool for engaging the present and the future," Frisch sums up. "The Pan-Am was one of those remarkable historical events that was about the future-what's interesting historically is their orientation around creating a vision of the future. That's a very interesting point of reference for a region that's trying to do the same thing now."

Patrick Klinck, B.A. '88, is a copywriter for the Buffalo News and an M.A. student in UB's Department of English.

Digital images courtesy of UB College of Arts and Sciences
Historical Photos courtesy of The Charles Rand Penney Collection

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