The 2018 instalment of the DHS Annual Conference, Design and Displacement, took place at Parsons School of Design in New York and was convened by Sarah Lichtman. As someone who looks at art and design from a multitude of disciplinary perspectives, including art history, design history, nationalism studies and area studies, I participate in a number conferences of these various subjects. The DHS Conference is among my favourites, as the three days of papers and talks provide for an intense and enjoyable, yet not overwhelming experience.
My paper entitled "Orphans of the Fair: Displacement of Exhibits and People at the New York World's Fair of 1939/40" was scheduled in the session "Displayed Objects and Structures", chaired by David Raizman. The topic is part of my ongoing research of national presentations at world's fairs in which I focus mainly on Czechoslovak, Hungarian and Austrian pavilions in the interwar period, and their politics of display. In my paper I focused on the fate of the Czechoslovak pavilion that fell victim to the imminent war and the Nazi occupation of part of Czechoslovakia. The pavilion had to be rethought, as many objects intended for display failed to arrive to the US and had to be replaced by locally-sourced items. It was not just the objects that were affected, however: Ladislav Sutnar, one of the designers of the Czechoslovak exhibit, was sent out to New York, never to return to Czechoslovakia.
The two other papers in the session explored the demolition of a number of Swedish psychiatric hospitals, delivered by Hedvig Mārdh (Uppsala University), and a strategic removal of medieval monasteries from Spain for the purposes of their relocation to the United States, presented by Brianna Nofil and Jake Purcell (Columbia University). All three papers, therefore, looked at issues related to site memory, preservation of heritage, practical questions around the removal of buildings, objects and people, and the involvement of well positioned individuals and businesses in these processes. At the heart of this all was indeed the topic of displacement considered from different theoretical points of view.
Similarly, other conference sessions and papers dealt with the theme from a range of perspectives, providing stimulating food for thought and ideas for further research, not just for me but I'm sure for many others, too. Each day was also finished by a keynote speech; Tony Fry, Mabel O. Wilson and Paul Chaat Smith delivered very different talks, which all addressed the theme of displacement and touched on current political issues. Yet conferences are not just about these academic interactions in lecture theatres and seminar rooms. A number of visits and social events were planned too, providing an extra dimension to the conference. This year's gala dinner was for many one of the highlights of the conference. The spectacular cruise on the Spirit of New Jersey took us up the Hudson alongside the main sites, with a short stop in front of the Statue of Liberty.
On the first day I attended one of the three visits on offer, this one to Flushing Meadows, the site of the 1939/40 World's Fair and the 1964/65 international exhibition. Guided by Ethan Robey in the scorching heat, and surrounded by US Open decorations, we explored what was left of the fairs in the immense park. Most of them were from 1964: the Unisphere, the remains of the Space Park, the sculpture of the Rocket Thrower. Some were in better condition than others, like the rusty ruins of the New York state pavilion. The existence of the two fairs, as well as the history of world's fairs, is also engraved in granite blocks in front of the Unisphere.
On the last day, the DHS Ambassadors, with the Society's Student Officer, organised a visit to what is most probably Brooklyn's smallest museum: The City Reliquary. The space brings together an incredible medley of objects of cultural and historic value, including uncountable Statues of Liberty of various sizes, world’s fairs ephemera, remnants of local landmarks, and even an old display birthday cake. These are accompanied by temporary exhibitions, which at the moment featured the unmissable roller disco.
With not much time to spare on either side of the conference, and being more an academic than a tourist, I managed to squeeze in a visit to MoMA, and to a couple of second-hand bookshops, as well as catch up with a few colleagues/friends who live in the city. Without the support of the DHS Research Travel & Conference Grant, none of this would have been possible, and I am therefore sincerely grateful for this award.
Dr Marta Filipová Research Fellow, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham
Headline image: Paul Chaat Smith delivers his keynote speech.