An emphasis on environmentalism and the conception of “the world of tomorrow” opened the new exhibition at the Beinecke last Friday.

The opening reception for the exhibition “World’s Fairs and the Landscapes of the Modern Metropolis” featured Alfred Heller, the editor of World’s Fair magazine and the author of “World’s Fairs and the End of Progress.” Heller attended his first World’s Fair in 1939, and subsequently devoted his life to studying World’s Fairs and expanding his collection. The core of the exhibition is Heller’s collection of World’s Fair paraphernalia, including posters, photographs, pamphlets, government reports and vintage ephemera from 1851 to 1939.

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The library acquired Heller’s personal collection in 2005, Beinecke Public Relations Coordinator Rebecca Martz said.

World’s Fairs have made significant contributions to the modern city, said Sandy Isenstadt, director of undergraduate studies for the history of art. Planners often found it necessary to build additional infrastructure to support the fairs’ activities and the tourists they attracted. Expanded gas and metro lines were left in place after the fair ended, contributing to the modernization of 19th-century cities. New — and often monumental — works of architecture built for the fairs helped shape the skylines of major cities. The Eiffel Tower, for instance, was built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

“The strength of the exhibition was in recognizing the important role of the World’s Fair in affecting subsequent urban development,” Isenstadt said. “[The exhibition] helps make students more aware of how the urban landscape comes to be built.”

The fairs also displayed exhibits that imagined possible “cities of the future”, such as a General Motors exhibit at the 1939 fair in New York that showed a city connected by superhighways, Isenstadt said. The model would later serve as the inspiration for the National Highway Act of the 1950s, he said.

Exhibition curator Kevin Repp said the World’s Fairs were designed to encourage imaginative thinking that might lead to social progress.

“The theme [of the exhibition] is fantasy and reality — the dialogue between the two of them,” he said. “The result of that interplay is largely what we see today.”

The earliest artifacts in the collection include pieces from taken from early London fairs, which sprang up as part of the Enlightenment. The French expanded the concept of the fair when they held the Exposition Publique des Produits de l’Industrie Francais following the French Revolution. The French used the fair as an expression of nationalistic pride.

Growing interest in scientific development, combined with the rise of imperialism and nationalism, inspired the first international fair in London’s Hyde Park in 1851. The fair not only showcased the progress of human thought and technology, but it also juxtaposed the accomplishments of competing empires. The first fair was later mimicked in many countries, some of which sought to compete with rival empires to put together the most impressive fair.

The competing empires often used the fairs to display the indigenous exports and art of their colonies, which inspired European artists like Picasso and Matisse.

The Beinecke exhibition highlights how, over time, World’s Fairs grew more commercial. For instance, Chicago’s 1893 Fair featured a large amusement park, including a Ferris wheel. Another fair, held immediately before World War II, featured Disney characters on its fliers.

In charting the process of transformation that shaped the modern skyline, the exhibition showcases the eerily utopian cityscapes and posters of the time, which feature stark images and surreal colors that may often look more dystopian than utopian to the modern eye.

“World’s Fairs and the Landscapes of the Modern Metropolis” will be on display until the end of March.