May 20 marked the 130th anniversary of the inauguration of the Universal Exhibition of 1888, which was Barcelona’s first contribution to the international circuit of exhibitions and trade fairs.

The exhibition was of supreme importance to Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain, for the industrial sector and for its population. It opened a gateway for the great transformations that mass production, transports, engineering and science would bring. The newspaper La Vanguardia, in a commemorative article, aptly referred to it as the Mobile World Congress of 1888. In a period without today’s mass communications, exhibitions were an excellent vehicle for spreading culture and technology.

The latest from around the world

There were 22 countries taking part, with 12,000 exhibitors and agents in an area of 450,000 m2 (thousands more square metres than Fira’s Gran Via and Montjuïc sites combined), and over a period of five months they displayed the latest developments of a world which had great faith in industrial and technological progress: textile machinery, the most important industry of the day, construction with iron and steel, printing, shipping, new engines and turbines… Catalan industry assumed a leading role and displayed itself to the world.

Visitors could see phonographs, photographic cameras, new agricultural and mining technology. More than two and a half million visitors came to see how Barcelona strove towards modernity and to admire new inventions from more advanced countries. In this sense, the pavilion of the city of New York was one of the most popular.

Urban impact

The exhibition was held in the Parc de la Ciutadella, which had been recovered for the city, in the areas nearby and on a part of the beach. It made a huge contribution to the international reputation of Barcelona as a metropolis. The city had only broken out of its restraining city walls a few years earlier, and was rolling out the l’Eixample district planned by Cerdà, which would eventually incorporate other nearby towns: Sants, Gracia, Sant Andreu, Les Corts, Sant Martí…

More than 50 architects and 146 master builders took part in the works of the Exhibition. Not only did Barcelona gain its largest green space, but it took advantage of the event to modernize (as it would in 1929 and 1992). The sea front between the park and the Rambla was developed (where the monument to Columbus would be raised), along with part of the Ribera district close to the exhibition area, including the Born Market (the Mercabarna of the day). Electricity was introduced into the main streets of the city at the same time as L’Eixample, the central square of Plaza Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia all took shape.

Many of the buildings and monuments that were built for the exhibition were ephemeral. Others have survived, such as the Arc de Triomf, the Castell dels Tres Dragons, which was the Zoology Museum for many years, the Geology Museum or the Palace of Justice.

New fairs

The exhibition would be followed by other initiatives, like the first Trade Fair in 1920, starting an activity that would continue for another seventy years, the International Exhibition of 1929 and the founding of Fira de Barcelona as an institution dedicated to promoting business, economic development and the projection of the city and its companies.