1901 Pan-American Buffalo Exposition Map

Anna Gedal

“Modern maps don’t have a memory.”[1] – Jim Enote a traditional Zuni farmer and director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center

Figure 1: Here’s a link to a zoomable, detailed version of this map.[2]

Jim Enote’s statement above from Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s article, Counter Mapping, is a provocative idea that has stuck with me. While the authors gave Enote space to explore the nuance of his declaration, I will take it at face value and use it to frame my critique of the official 1901 Pan-American Exposition map held in Buffalo, New York.

This map, an aerial view of the 350-acre Pan-American Buffalo Exposition grounds was drawn by C.E. Pelz and printed by local lithographer, G. H. Dunston, and was “the last and most accurate of a series of maps issued by the Pan-American Exposition Company.”[3] The Pan-American Exposition Company, which organized the Fair, included some odd bedfellows: federal authorities, showmen, investors, as well as prominent anthropologists and Smithsonian curators. And we see their fingerprints all over this map. For example, notice how, surrounding the grounds, are the names of specific railroad lines and stations—helpful information for visitors and an advertisement for investors (who included railroad men). The map also shows the names of each concession clearly labeled. Based on the assertion of accuracy in the map’s description, I assume it was intended to help visitors plan their days and navigate the fairgrounds. Because of its size, about 12 by 20 inches, I imagine it was meant to be folded up and carried around (though this specific copy shows no signs of having ever been folded). Because it is an official map and there is no printed price, I imagine it was free. It was mass printed on paper, making it disposable—perhaps visitors discarded after a day at the Fair or at the end of a trip to Buffalo.

The map’s color scheme is more revealing of its ideology, or, as historian Thongchai Winichakul phrased it, in his study of nation-mapping in Siam, mapping is not merely “a conceptual tool for spatial representation” but a “a lethal instrument to concretize the projected desire on the earth’s surface.”[4] Everything inside the fairgrounds is illustrated in vivid color, outside it, is cast in greyscale.[5] Blue represents bodies of water, like canals and fountains; red connotes exhibition halls, restaurants, railway stations, and other buildings; yellow, walkways, and promenades; green, however, has multiple meanings. Green represents greenspace and the Fair’s Midway, its designated amusement zone. Contrasting its formal exhibition halls, the Midway was a designated space of entertainment, though its rides were simultaneously marketed as educational. Many of them were ethnographic villages that displayed cultural performers from around the world.[6] I want to stay zoomed in here, on the Midway. To me, this is the most interesting part of the map and is tied to my thesis research on ethnographic villages and the experience of cultural performers.

But first, I will turn back briefly to Enote’s provocation: Does this map have a memory, and if so, what? To me, the 1901 map absolutely does. It is a memory of physical containment and cultural erasure.[7] Look no further than the labeling of the ethnographic villages on the Midway: “African,” “Esquimaux,” “Hawaii,” “Philippines.” These simple names are a profound declaration concealing a messy reality. That is precisely a function of this map. These labels project a shared identity and culture of the performers contained within these distinctive spaces. They also projected American imperial domination over these distant lands, again echoing Winichakul’s argument. (See Figure 2 below for an on-the-nose example of how flagrantly American power is projected onto these spaces. It is a photograph of the Philippine Village. Notice how an American flag is literally planted above its entrance, which shows that the Fair leaders were not trying to hide their intent.)

Here is the Fair’s director-general articulating its explicit purpose: “[The 1901 Fair] is the…best opportunity we have…to justify, by means of the most available object lessons we can produce, the acquisition of new territory.”[8] Their most potent objects were not objects at all; they were people and the land they inhabited. Cultural performers were brought to the Midway under different circumstances, with widely varying degrees of agency. They spoke different languages, were members of different cultures and communities. Many had to learn how to communicate with each other and negotiate the demands of performing their culture under the direction of a white showman and for a white audience. They had their own individual motivations for coming, and some had no choice at all. The work was emotionally and physically grueling and dangerous, the conditions poor, and the pay little. Despite their impact, little of their experiences remain in archives or in public memory.

So, returning to Enote’s statement of a modern map having no memory: though modern maps, like this one, were designed as objective tools of spatial mapping, we can read them differently from their makers’ intent. This reading requires listening for the silences and absences, seeking out other ways of knowing. With conscious practice, patience, and research, we can find their hidden meanings. Once our eyes adjust to the darkness, a new world is rendered visible to us.

Figure 2: American Flag on top of the entrance of the Philippine Village. The Fair was held in the midst of the American-Philippine War, which did not end for another year.[9]

Through my WIP prototype (it is best viewed in Excel, not Sheets, to support the gif files and photographs), I have created a deep map to un/remap cultural performance at the 1901 Fair. It is the beginning of a “hacked” platform; I am reimagining a Microsoft Excel sheet as a mapping tool, which I use to draw the Midway (see Figure 3). I chose this platform because of its place as a mundane, bureaucratic cataloguing tool. I have added what Simone Browne calls “microresistances.” She emphasizes that resistance to managerial control must be seen for what it was—not laziness, but a “strategic means of contesting surveillance in the workplace.”[10] For example, one of the African performers converted to Christianity so he would not have to perform the “fetish dance” for the crowd. Another used his wages to buy a graphophone and recorded performers’ voices. I have cross-referenced newspaper articles documenting the “microresistances” with the names of cultural performers to add context to their resistances. Ultimately, I hope to expand on this project and create a larger, participatory archive to document the traces of performers’ lives and experiences from early 20th-century world fairs and create a way for their descendants to contribute their ancestors’ memories and to connect with each other.

Figure 3: These are screenshots of my prototype. I chose Excel because of its role as a standard bureaucratic tool, used by institutions to catalog collections. Through a spreadsheet, details and nuances of objects and people are rendered invisible. Through this prototype, I seek to find an alternative practice, resist Excel’s standard usage and harness its extensive multimedia compatibilities to imbue the map with color, layers of meaning, and humanity. I use a mix of tracings, advertisements, films, newspaper clippings, and interviews, and photographs to shed light on the experiences of ethnographic performers. I include a near-complete list of Africans performers’ names (compiled by anthropologist Kevin P. Smith). From the list, I crossed referenced the names of performers with newspaper articles to highlight “microresistances” (image in the bottom left). In the image in the bottom right, I included a clip from one of three Edison films of the Native Alaskan performers, along with a tracing of a performer as a way to explore a haptic epistemology, along with an advertisement of the village. In the coming weeks, I will continue to expand, refine, and explore these ideas in my alternative archive and consider the ways my own white gaze may be “recolonizing” the experiences.


Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Illustrated edition. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2015.

Loften, Adam, and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee. “Counter Mapping.” Emergence Magazine, December 2019. https://emergencemagazine.org/story/counter-mapping/.

Pelz, C. E. “Revised Plan of the Pan-American Exposition, April 15, 1901 ; to Be Held at Buffalo, New York.” Scanned Maps-Curiosity Digital Collections, Harvard Library. Accessed February 9, 2021. https://curiosity.lib.harvard.edu/scanned-maps/catalog/44-990133618220203941.

Philippine Village. 1901. Photographic print. https://www.loc.gov/item/95502541/.

Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Reprint Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Illustrated Edition. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2003.

Winichakul, Thongchai. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

[1] Loften and Vaughan-Lee, “Counter Mapping.”

[2] Pelz, “Revised Plan of the Pan-American Exposition.”

[3] This is according to Harvard University, which houses the map in its collection.

[4] In writing this powerful declaration, Winichakul was referring specifically to imperial conquest fought because of how borders were arbitrarily drawn on a map, potentially thousands of miles away from the actual battlefields. The Midway was a battlefield in a different sense. The ethnographic villages projected a false narrative that the distant lands they represented had already been “conquered” by the U.S. However, the fight for control over the map, which brought the performers to Buffalo, created lethal conditions for performers, who with no natural immunity to infectious diseases and forced to live and work under physically and emotionally dangerous conditions, did not always survive the performance. Illness and even death was not uncommon. (Winichakul, Siam Mapped, 129–30).

[5] Color coding tied to architecture and white supremacy was not limited to a map of the 1901 Fair. Nicknamed “the Rainbow City,” the Fair’s buildings were actually painted bright colors, where vivid bright ones connoted “primitivism” and light, pale ones represented white American civilization. The Fair’s paint colors mapped a global racial hierarchy that put white Americans at the very top.

[6] To me, this double use of green echoes the logic of natural history museums, which commonly display dinosaur bones and taxidermied animals alongside fragments of indigenous cultures suggesting that indigenous people are another extinct species, a relic of the past, and as such, should be catalogued, classified, collected similarly to animals and minerals. It dehumanizes them, erases the complexities of their cultures, and elucidates the violence of colonialism—all in the service of making them easily understood by white audiences. This system of racist/racialized classification is spatially mapped through world’s fairs. This logic is then adopted by professional natural history museums, which are born out of the same colonial impulse, are led by some of the same anthropologists who helped design ethnographic villages at world’s fairs (Rydell, All the World’s a Fair, 6).

[7] Diana Taylor speaks so eloquently about the impact of ethnographic villages as spaces of containment and projected colonial control (Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire).

[8] Rydell, All the World’s a Fair, 139.

[9] Philippine Village.

[10] Browne, Dark Matters, 6.

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