One of the nice things about living near D.C. is that there's plenty of free entertainment in the form of museums, including the National Building Museum, which I visited last Friday. The museum is currently running an exhibition called "Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s," and while the exhibit's focus is primarily domestic, it does have some public diplomacy significance.
World's Fairs, as Armand Mattelart has noted, are elaborate metaphors with global symbolic significance. The Fairs of the 1930s, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II, emphasized the role of science and consumerism for national ascendancy, themes that survived World War II and the Cold War and continue to influence public discourse today. The exhibit's design is engaging and includes posters, still photographs, models and films--my personal favorite features a Typical American Family marveling at a wisecracking, cigarette-smoking robot named Elektro (portending, evidently, a future in which tobacco products are plentiful and Cs in short supply).
As the exhibit notes, "In the midst of the Great Depression and with Fascism on the rise in Europe, these fairs depicted a world of plenty and freedom--a hopeful vision of modern life in America. Civic leaders and businessmen hoped the fairs would stimulate local economies. Corporations were eager to showcase their products and have them associated with themes of a better future and an American way of life. And federal officials all the way up to President Franklin Roosevelt hoped to restore faith in the nation's economic and political systems."
A museum blog offers more information about the Fairs' international aspects. World's Fairs and Expos continue to serve as tools of nation branding. However, the U.S. withdrew from the Bureau of International Expositions in June 2001, due to a lack of Congressional funding, and has not rejoined, leaving private enterprise to fill the void. The exhibit runs through mid-July and admission is free.