The ethnic villages of the Chicago Worldâ€™s Fair of 1893 exposed Americans to different cultures, but they also promoted stereotypes â€” many of which are reflected in a picture book from the era displayed in Harvardâ€™s Peabody Museum.
To counter the bookâ€™s often-condescending descriptions of the people who were recruited from around the world to work in the fairâ€™s Midway â€” in attractions such as the Moorish Palace and Eskimo Village â€” curators enlisted students to do research. The result is a digital display pairing the bookâ€™s 80 full-page portraits of Midway performers with new bios and context provided by students.
â€śThe descriptions in the book tend to objectify the people of the Midway, rather than recognizing them as individuals. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s interesting to research them now,â€ť 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 museumâ€™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?