The ethnic villages of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 exposed Americans to different cultures, but they also promoted stereotypes — many of which are reflected in a picture book from the era displayed in Harvard’s Peabody Museum.
To counter the book’s often-condescending descriptions of the people who were recruited from around the world to work in the fair’s Midway — in attractions such as the Moorish Palace and Eskimo Village — curators enlisted students to do research. The result is a digital display pairing the book’s 80 full-page portraits of Midway performers with new bios and context provided by students.
“The descriptions in the book tend to objectify the people of the Midway, rather than recognizing them as individuals. That’s why it’s interesting to research them now,” said Nam Kim, a sophomore who searched newspapers and ads for details about two Samoans identified in the book as William and Mele.
Ilisa Barbash, the museum’s curator of visual anthropology, asked students to explore how Midway personalities were presented and perceived in addition to basic biographical questions: Where were they from? Who brought them to Chicago? What happened to them after the fair?