The students requested that UW take down several plaques and historical displays that glorify this exposition, and, like Victoria, replace them with something that also points to the fair’s exploitative side.
The history is indeed problematic. Fairs and expos at that time were obsessed with presenting human exhibits. According to author Claire Prentice, a cottage industry of carnival showmen sprang up who would travel to far-flung spots and bring back Indigenous people, presumably voluntarily, so fairgoers could gawk at them.
Seattle’s expo had at least two such exhibits — “Igorrote Village,” located just west of where UW Medical Center is today, and another called “Eskimo Village,” about where the physics building is today along 15th Avenue Northeast.
Here people bought tickets to see mocked-up tribal villages where men, women and children lived for four months on display. The Igorot (today’s spelling), from the Philippines, would dance and throw spears for the crowds.
As a UW Libraries digital history notes, these human exhibits were the most popular at a fair that drew 3.7 million visitors. Yet as the students note, there’s no acknowledgment on plaques on campus about the exploitation at the heart of this event, and only shallow mention in some historical displays.
The students called on the UW to apologize, which, to me, is beside the point. Nobody alive was involved in this. But the students are absolutely right that this history, where colonialism, racism and entertainment converged to birth the UW campus, ought to be memorialized.
Recently there have been states passing legislation to bar discussion of uncomfortable history. But I’d say the folks in Victoria are doing it about right. Don’t erase bad history — engage it head-on. Don’t just take down the statues or the whitewashing plaques. Put up something that points closer to the full story. And also explains why you’re telling it — guilt, anguish, distress and all.
Sanitizing discussions of history with book bans and “anti-woke” acts is all the political rage right now. The best part of this story? The kids at the UW are signaling they’re having none of that fad.