Notes from the World’s Fair Memory Project
Written by Eileen Townsend. Eileen Townsend is a Curatorial Intern at the museum and a senior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. For more from Eileen, check out her website.
“The nights at the fair were gorgeous. The weather happened to be nice for the bulk of the season in 1939: a nice pleasant spring; the summer wasn’t too hot. The people came out to see the fair at night, with its fountains and colored lights in the fountains…
In ’64-65 I worked as a projectionist. So, I saved film because film was the thing. A new technology! You were affected by that!”
-Oral History of Norman Perse, Brooklyn, NY, speaking about his experience at the New York World’s Fairs
I’ve learned, over the past couple months working as the intern for the World’s Fair Memory Project at the Queens Museum of Art, that every New Yorker has a World’s Fair story. Museum visitors tell me that their uncles worked as projectionists in the IBM Pavilion, that their Moms sold Bel-gem Waffles in the Belgian Village, or that they happen to have a Fair-themed postcard or mug or guidebook collection that they have stashed in their closet for almost 50 years. I have had the chance to hear about intrigue (mafia-controlled concessionaire stands?), love (“It was our first date, and I knew I’d met my wife…”) and disappointment (“’64 couldn’t compare to ‘39” or “The neighborhood is not like it was when I was a child”.)
I was worried, when I first began collecting histories for the Museum’s archives, that I wouldn’t know what questions to ask. I’m a senior in college and originally from Tennessee, so I’m one of the odd presences around the neighborhood that knew nothing about the Fairs until a few years ago. My worries were unfounded. I’ve never had to draw a story of a person I’ve interviewed. On a typical day of interviewing, my interviewee and I will walk through the Panorama, pass through the Museum’s collection of commemorative plates, posters and maps, and take a look through the back window of the Museum, of the 1964-65 Unisphere. Looking out at the park and walking around the museum triggers memories. People want to say, “I was there!” or “I remember when…”
Here are a few “remember-whens” from recent interviews:
The theme of the 1964/65 Fair was “Peace Through Understanding”, and its symbol was a giant steel globe, meant to represent understanding and unity between distant communities and cultures. It’s my opinion–as a lover of oral history, and also as a New-York transplant from a far-away state—that one of the main ways understanding is achieved is through storytelling. In ’64, General Motors told stories of cities of the future and the Spanish Pavilion told stories of Europe’s rich artistic past. On Saturdays, visitors to the Museum tell me stories of how their Mom was a performer in the New York State Pavilion, or how they kept every disposable map of the fairgrounds they ever used. I’m honored to get to hear people’s stories; they help me understand what it means to live in this city. I think, also, that in so many of these small moments, the best of the Fair’s spirit lives again.
Were you at the 1939 or 1964 Fairs? If so, we would love to hear your stories! Leave a comment below to schedule your interview.