The American world's fairs of the Depression years were over-the-top, optimistic projects that made future-gazing a cultural staple. According to the fairs' organizers and promoters, such looking ahead could bolster people's sagging faith in the country's economic and political systems. These fairs decanted a messy decade into neat packages of hope, dramatized the shape of things to come, and distorted or denied social reality to accommodate corporate America's consumerist utopias.

Creating a museum exhibition decades later, out of such extravagantly hopeful projects, poses a robust intellectual challenge. How does one recreate the particular mood of the fairs in their historic times without overinvesting in their seductive messages? Balancing an "authentic" representation of past events with the unavoidable lessons of hindsight is a daunting task.

The exhibition at the National Building Museum titled Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s deftly...

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