Assembling Smallness: The American Small Industries Exhibition, Ceylon 1961

SMArchS Thesis: History, Theory, and Criticism, Spring 2015

The American Small Industries Exhibition, an itinerant trade fair, went on view in Colombo, Ceylon, in January 1961. Intended to support industrialisation in the developing world, the exhibition was also an attempt to establish trade ties with non-aligned yet socialist-leaning nations. Emphasising industry in a nation still clinging to an agricultural economy, the exhibition can be read as having a clear message of capitalistic modernisation. Descriptions of the fair, however, are often contradictory and unexpected, commencing with the unusual presentation of the USA as a wellspring of small-scale industry.

Using the exhibition’s nomenclature as a provocation, this thesis examines the exhibition’s aspirations in relation to political realities of 1960s Ceylon. It considers the exhibition as a metonym for the nation; although an assemblage of parts, both the exhibit and the nation it represents are read as a distinct unit. This thesis deconstructs the exhibition into its constituent components (while cognisant that this deconstruction can be continued ad infinitum) and examines the pieces minutely, making a case for studying the very small to illuminate the very large.

This thesis reads the process described as modernisation not as relentless, unified, and unidirectional, but as fragmented, contingent, and suffused with the ‘unmodern’. It demonstrates how contradictions within the apparatuses of modernisation in both nations are revealed through scrutinising the pieces, suggesting that modernisation is a label affixed to make sense of machine-induced labour displacement. It posits that defining difference in terms of national identity disregards the international transfer of ideas, whose boundaries are simultaneously more local and more global than that of the nation. It takes particular issue with the measures used to divide the globe into ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations, and argues that to deconstruct modernisation is to also deconstruct the nation.

Image: Entrance to the American Small Industries Exhibition. Department of National Archives, Sri Lanka