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Cover Story: 1893 Fair gave Siamese Queen a chance to tell nation’s story

Wed, Feb 5, 2014

Queen Savang Vadhana

Queen Savang Vadhana

Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World: with cultural discovery as the fair’s theme, the Chicago History Museum’s special exhibit, “Siam: The Queen and the White City,” seems to be an appropriate way to commemorate the fair. The exhibit, open through March 2, features artifacts Queen Savang Vadhana of Siam (modern-day Thailand) sent to Chicago for the fair. Returning to Chicago for the first time since the exposition, these artifacts offer a meaningful connection between Thailand and Chicago, between the past and the present.

The exhibit prominently features Queen Savang Vadhana, monarch from 1880 to 1910, and her many humanitarian accomplishments. Many of her causes were linked to the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged, such as bringing medical and educational services to rural areas. The exhibit says, “The royal activities which she performed with humanitarian spirit were for the benefit of the people, helping to lay down a foundation for the sustainable development of Thai society.”

On display at the exhibit are examples of the Queen’s own copies of Western material, such as “National Geographic,” “Country Life,” and “Aesop’s Fables.” Interested in both bringing global influences to Siam and bringing Siamese influences to the world, Queen Savang Vadhana promoted many cultural exchanges.

Pleased to accept Chicago’s invitation to have a collection of Siamese artifacts featured at the fair, the King—who was the basis for the son in the musical The King and I— asked Queen Savang Vadhana to organize the nation’s display. Among the artifacts the Queen sent to Chicago were Siamese arts and crafts, embroidered silk, silver and gold filaments, textiles, jewelry, and antique objects. These artifacts were featured in The Agricultural Building, The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, and The Woman’s Building. The “Sala Siam Pavilion” in the Woman’s Building was assisted heavily by Mrs. Bertha Palmer, who had helped oversee many aspects of the fair. Both Mrs. Palmer and Queen Savang Vadhana were notable for their strong management, at a time when women were traditionally left out of the coordinating of important events. Both helped make the fair an example of modernization in cultures and values.

“[The fair] was planned for cultural enlightenment and commercial opportunity,” says the Chicago History Museum’s exhibit. To some, the “commercial opportunity” motive discredits the fair’s international focus. They argue that some of these attractions were strictly for entertainment purposes, while others misrepresented or depreciated the cultures they presented. What makes the Siam artifacts so unique is that the Queen selected them herself: unlike some of the other international objects that were chosen by fair coordinators, the Queen could select artifacts that represented the Siamese culture in an authentic and meaningful way.

The fair, though it certainly had its faults, was the beginning of Chicago’s reputation as a “global city”—we were both incorporating new, international influences into our city’s identity, as well as establishing our own place on the world stage. Fair organizers were celebrating 400 years since discovering the New World, but their true goal was to expand the definition of the world beyond Old and New, East and West. They were envisioning a city that could be an international center: maybe the kind of city that, 120 years later, could host 40 million visitors annually, have dozens of cultural institutions, and boast exhibits like “Siam: The Queen and the White City” that celebrate a remarkable history.

Frani O’Toole
StreetWise Contributor

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