Fifty summers ago, the world witnessed a remarkable cultural face-off between its two superpowers: after months of protracted negotiations, on December 29, 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a groundbreaking agreement providing for the exchange of major national exhibitions in New York and Moscow during the summer of 1959.
The Soviet Union, bolstered by its success with the Sputnik space program, ploughed an estimated $12 million into its effort in the United States. With an impressive four-acre presentation, the Soviet Exhibition opened in New York City's Coliseum-one of the most luxuriously equipped exhibition venues in the world-on June 30, 1959.
The Americans, by contrast, had to make do with a paltry $3.5 million in Federal funding for their reciprocal effort in the U.S.S.R. Adding to the challenge was the venue for the American show-ten acres of raw forest in a park well outside the center of Moscow. In seven short months the Americans would need to build roads, run power and water lines, erect eight structures and design and install hundreds of exhibits.
Architect George Nelson, selected by the United States Information Agency to be part of the design team for the American effort, summed up the situation: "Panics and problems. No funds. No budget. No program." Soon, however, the USIA, together with Nelson and his teammates, R. Buckminster Fuller and Charles and Ray Eames, set about transforming the forest in Sokolniki Park into a veritable "Corner of America".
Although largely dependent on a grab-bag of contributions from the American private sector, the designers sought to make the exhibits as accessible as possible: hoods were lifted on cars from Ford, Chrysler and GM; cakes were baked in kitchens by GE and Westinghouse; IBM's RAMAC computer was pre-programmed to answer 4000 questions about America in Russian; and visitors were encouraged to personally pick-up or touch as many items on display as possible. Charles and Ray Eames's seven-screen film presentation, "Glimpses of the USA", sought to visually verify that everything on display in Moscow was genuine, and not created solely for the Moscow exhibition.
The day before the Exhibition was to open to the public, Vice President Nixon and Premier Khrushchev toured the U.S. site. There, the two leaders argued the relative merits of their respective systems, first in RCA's Color Television Studio and then at the kitchen in the All-State Model Home. In the midst of their exchanges (now famously known as the "kitchen debate"), the pair stopped at the Pepsi Kiosk for a sip of Pepsi-Cola. All the while, workers elsewhere on the site continued to work at a fever pitch to install exhibits.
Against all odds, the American show opened to the public on July 25, 1959, as planned. By the end of that first day, more than 70,000 Soviet visitors thronged through the U.S. Exhibition, pulverizing concrete floors along the way.
A major attraction for Soviet visitors, most of whom had never met an American, were seventy-five young Russian-speaking American guides stationed throughout the site. Visitors peppered the guides with questions: "Why is the U.S. surrounding us with military bases? How much does your father earn? Will you marry me?" It was an exciting time for all, and while these interactions produced one marriage between an American guide and a Soviet visitor, eight American couples who met at the Exhibition eventually married.
Keeping the hugely popular Book Exhibit stocked was an on-going challenge for the American staff. When hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books began disappearing, an urgent cable was sent to Washington declaring "Books Pilfered! Send More!" In an effort to keep even these replacement books from vanishing, some had their back covers nailed to the walls. At the end of the day, however, all that would remain were the back covers.
The Automobile show, Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man", Walt Disney's "Circarama" and a fashion show with rock 'n roll music were among the crowd's favorites. The Art Show, however, generated fierce controversy. Ironically, abstract artists like Jackson Pollack, ridiculed in the Soviet press as "lunatics from an insane asylum", were vilified back home as well. Conservative members of Congress in Washington worried that American abstractionists were Communist sympathizers using dribbles of paint to send secret coded messages to the Kremlin!
During its six-week run, more than 2,700,000 Soviets visited the "Corner of America" in Sokolniki Park. Today, the 1959 exchange of national exhibitions is viewed as one of the most important cultural encounters of the Cold War. But, whether or not the United States succeeded fifty years ago in changing the hearts and minds of Soviet fairgoers, one thing is abundantly clear: we made contact with people we hardly understood and they with us. And, more frequently than not, we found common ground. "Cold War Confrontations, US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War"
By Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan, Lars Muller Publishers, 2008
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