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Flashback to the Ghent World Fair of 1913

The collection on show in the National Bank of Belgium’s Museum not only features banknotes and coins, but also has an array of medals. To mark this year’s centenary of the 1913 Ghent World Fair, this Object of the Month focuses the spotlight on the medals that were made on the occasion of this exhibition.

The Universal Exhibition or “Expo” concept was long in the making, but officially came into being in 1851 in London with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. This exhibition was the first of a long series running right up to the First World War and then became a recipe for international success. Before 1913, Antwerp, Brussels and Liège had already taken on the role of host city. From 26 April to 3 November, it was the town of Ghent’s turn to open its gates to the world.

The World Expos brought public recognition for the art of medal-making. They were a reflection of the competition between the participant nations to display their latest and best products to the rest of the world. Since 1851, it was a tradition for a jury to hand out prizes to the exhibitors. These came with an official bronze medal from the International Award Jury. These rewards were generally accepted as a guarantee of quality and were regarded as an excellent means of propaganda for the merchandise. So, it was not surprising that the traders rewarded for their wares were all too happy to use this medal on theur packaging or their letterheads.

The official reward medal was designed by Godefroid Devreese, who at the time was one of the most renowned medallists. [1]
The essence of the exhibition was summed up on the face of the medal. Taking centre stage on the front is the Gentse Maagd (the Virgin of Ghent), the symbol of the city where the Universal Exhibition was being held. The three young girls in front of her reflect an ideal world fair where art and trade were presented alongside each other. The first of the three has a lyre in her hands as a symbol of Art. The third girl is carrying a so-called caduceus, the staff that always depicts the God of Commerce, Hermes or Mercurius. She is thus referring to Commerce. The girl in the middle has no attributes, which makes it harder to explain her presence. Since she is embracing the other two, she probably represents the union, solidarity and collaboration between art and trade. The Virgin is followed by a labourer who depicts industry and a girl with flowers in her hands. She symbolises the city’s hospitality to foreign countries and the delegations taking part in the exhibition.

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The reverse side of the medal also shows an aspect of the World Expo. Here, a greenhouse with flowers and plants can be seen; this refers to the Ghent Floralies that formed part of the whole event. The two women who are making garlands for the laureates represent the reward thar goes with the medal.

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Alongside the official reward medal, some local districts of Ghent had their own versions produced. One example of this is Oud-Vlaanderen – an uninhabited district with reconstructions of buildings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. This was actually separate from the official word exhibition; but it attracted so many visitors that it can be regarded as an apex. The idea of having an old city was certainly not new, because it was first introduced back in 1883. Oud-Vlaanderen glorified the medieval past, something that is clear to see from the front of the medal which shows a bust of a woman in medieval clothing. Around her, three coats of arms -from Ghent, Ypres and Bruges – are depicted.
The back of the medal once again refers to the city of Ghent. Here, it is the dragon of Ghent’s belfry that is shown, under which appears the city’s motto Hou ende Trou. This is also a reference to the medieval past of the town and of Flanders.

There were many other good reasons for producing medals. A good many of them were therefore dedicated to events taking place during the World Fair. Among the things coinciding with the exhibition was the inauguration by the King of the newly deepened Ghent-Terneuzen canal and the refurbishment of the bell-tower. [5]
The medals that were made to mark these occasions show the same image on the front; while the inscription on the back commemorates the event. On the front, the Gentse Maagd is sitting down, supported by the city’s coat of arms, alongside some books and a terrestrial globe. On the left-hand side, there is a lion and the Virgin is holding a banner with the inscription S.P.Q.G. This refers to Senatus Populusque Gandavensis; the government and the inhabitants of Ghent. The background, showing towers and some factories, represents the city itself.

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Medals remained popular after the end of the Ghent World Fair, acting as souvenirs. Production of these specimens was much more commonplace than with the other medals, since they were sales items. [7]
In the background of the exhibited medal made by Auguste Bija, one can see the main entrance to the Ghent World Fair against the rising sun. On the reverse side, the inscription again refers to the Expo.

At the end of the event, medals were handed out as a form of acknowledgement. Minister Armand Hubert was among those who was given such a medal. In his capacity as Minister of Industry and Labour, he had been closely involved in the organisation of the World Fair. The medal, designed by Godefroid Devreese, depicts the Minister sitting reading at his desk. Only on the back is there any reference to the exhibition itself. Here, the main entrance is depicted above the words “1913 Gent Tentoonstelling aan den Heer Minister Arm. Hubert’/’1913 Gand Exposition à Monsieur le ministre Arm. Hubert” in the two national languages.

Laurence Vepoort
Museum Guide

Photos 1 – 7: © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

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