Why badges and folk dancing are the key to a successful Expo

With Expo 2017 ending this week in Kazakhstan, Dubai 2020 is next on the list, James Langton writes from Astana

The theme of Expo 2017 is future energy, but in the Africa Pavilion it is sales of carved animals that count. James Langton / The National
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Expos are like cities in miniature. They offer employment, education, culture, food, entertainment, and shopping.

They also have a thriving black market.

In the case of the latter, it is badges, the bitcoin of the exposition world. Everyone makes them and everyone wants them, but the price is market driven.

A typical exchange goes like this. “Hello. how are you?” Handshake and brief silence. “You have badge?”

One of the most coveted badges is the gold falcon worn on the tarboosh of Emirati volunteers at Expo 2017. Unfortunately it is part of the official uniform and not for exchange. In the world of Expo badge collectors, it rivals the British Guiana One Cent Magenta stamp.

Expo 2017, which winds up this week in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is the last stop before Dubai Expo 2020.

The theme of Expo 2017 was future energy. It was a message open to liberal interpretation by some of the 122 countries taking part. For those in the Africa pavilion it was largely an opportunity to sell carved elephants, ebony tribal masks, leather purses and turquoise earrings.


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One of the few countries to follow the brief was South Africa, which offered information about its energy policies, plus a framed photograph of Nelson Mandela. “We're not allowed to sell stuff,” explained a member of the South African delegation. “Maybe on the last day we will be open to offers.”

An essential component of all Expos is folklorique, generally expressed through crafts and traditional music and dancing. The UAE, for example, has the National Band of Folklore Arts, who performed at the country's National Day celebrations on Wednesday. Belarus offers windmills woven from straw, on sale this week at 30 per cent off.

Others strayed from tradition at their peril. The Brazilians offered a high energy display of Samba rhythms that brought an emphatic Sim! from the crowds. On the other hand, the verdict on a Polish rapper was a decided Nie from the audience of four.

Pakistan's pavilion was a clever attempt to combine energy policies, drummers and jugglers, and a range of competitively priced hand-painted glassware.

India adopted a similar approach, with a notably persistent group of stall holders pushing deep discounts on its range of crafts and bags of chai. An off the cuff conversation with the man in charge revealed why.

“I have been doing expos since 1992, but this is the first time I have lost money. Maybe 150,000 US dollars.” The thought of Dubai Expo 2020 seemed to lighten his mood; also the prospect of one last sale. “Are you sure you don’t want to buy some tea?”

Images from the UAE's National Day celebrations at Expo 2017
They show (since I don't seem to be able to edit the descriptions in desk) 
Yolla dancers celebrate UAE National Day at Expo 2017 in front of the world's largest spherical building. Takatof volunteers joined by young Kazakhstan volunteers wearing UAE national dress greet guests to the celebrations, the UAE parade featuring the Expo 2017 mascots and the UAE National Band for Folklore Arts, and queues waiting to visit the UAE Pavilion.
Queues of visitors outside the UAE Pavilion at Expo 2017. James Langton / The National

Astana visitor numbers can probably be explained by the city’s relative remoteness, deep in the heart of Central Asia and where winter roars in from the Steppes with temperatures that can plunge to minus 40c. In the last few days of the Expo, the mercury dropped from 35c to the low teens in the space of 24 hours.

Once part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has prospered from its rich natural resources. Astana has grown from a population of around 60,000 to nearly a million in 20 years. With its spectacular architecture, it often invites comparison with Dubai.

Like Dubai 2020, Expo 2017 is a chance to demonstrate soft power and attract an international audience. To host the exposition, President Nursultan Nazarbayev constructed a vast horseshoe of steel and glass on the outskirts of the city to house the national pavilions.

At its centre is the world’s largest spherical building that some have compared to the Death Star, and others to a giant marble; the home of the Khazakhstan pavilion, a high tech display that daringly eschews folk dancing for robots and includes the confusingly sounding “Museum of Future Energy.”

A visit to the Expo also offers an alternative perspective on geopolitical power, meaning that some countries take it more seriously than others. The United States is forbidden by law from using government funds for its pavilion and resorted to luring in the punters with a medley of classic soul hits.

Old soldiers never die - they just go to Expos. A group of elderly Kazakhstan war veterans in traditional dress visit Expo 2017. James Langton / The National
Old soldiers never die - they just go to Expos. A group of elderly Kazakhstan war veterans in traditional dress visit Expo 2017. James Langton / The National

Russia decided to run with the theme of future energy by demonstrating how it will able able to exploit the natural resources of its northern lands thanks to global warning. The pavilion featured a fleet of model remote controlled floating tankers steering though a replica of the melting  ice pack of the North West passage.

One of the most lavish was Turkmenstan’s pavilion in cream and gold, and with working models of the oil and gas-rich nation’s various energy projects as well as rugs from the national museum.

They reflected, according to the display, an: “Era of Might and Happiness under the leadership of the Esteemed President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.”

Jordan, short on natural resources but long on culture, constructed a detailed polystyrene replica of The Treasury at Petra for its entrance.

The United Kingdom lured visitors with a darkened womb of a pavilion whose centrepiece was a  large perspex yurt-like structure, with touch sensitive struts that each played a single note when touched.

Also, unusually for the British, they had turned on the central heating, making it a cosy refuge from the chill winds outside.

Japan had fully embraced the concept of kawaii (cute) with the style of its videos, but also with its female presenters in jaunty kepi-style caps.

They narrowly lost out for the most charming and hospitable title of Expo 2017, though, thanks to the young volunteers from Takatof at the UAE pavilion, one of the go-to destinations on the visitor list.

So there it is. To ensure a successful Expo, the advice is to include folk dancing, interactive displays, a souvenir stall and badges. Lots of badges. No need to say thanks, Dubai Expo 2020.