Expo 2015 Milano – Part 1: “You queued 2 hours to go to Japan?”

Yes, I queued two hours to go to Japan. I mean, the Japan pavilion at Expo 2015 Milano and it was worth it!

If you’re confused, and for all the friends who have asked what in the world Expo 2015 Milano is and what was I up to in Milan, this post will shortly answer that. But! Better yet, I will share my thoughts as a member of the general audience on the first of four goals of an Expo: educating the public.

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Can you see where the corridor ends? This picture was taken from the terrace of the U.S. pavilion.

What is an Expo?

An “Expo” is an international exhibition approved by the intergovernmental organisation, International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE). Exhibitions must last more than three weeks and claim to be of non-commercial nature. So, after bidding to host the 2015 Expo, the city of Milan won. It then chose: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” as the theme for the exhibition.

I hope that’s enough context to continue reading, but if you would like to learn more about what an Expo is, click here.

Keen to learn more about food security and agriculture, I decided to go to Expo 2015 Milano. My mother joined for three days in a row – I’m grateful to her for being such good company and discussing several points included in this post.

According to the Expo 2015 Milano website, over 140 countries participated. The event was held in an area in the outskirts of Milan and after getting there, the first thing we had to do each day was… queue. Lots and lots of curious minds. I talk a bit more on educating the general public in part 2 but for now, according to the Expo 2015 Milano website, over 20 million visitors like us were expected during the opening months (May 1st to October 31st ). It’s encouraging to see so many people eager to learn about food security.

How to organise 140 countries, companies, and NGOs in the same space and under one theme?

I was very curious about this point. How to create a cohesive experience that represents the two central themes, food security and renewable energy, but that allows each country enough separateness for the visitor to assimilate differences.

Each day, after we presented our tickets, we walked and walked to get to the proper entrance and when we did, we looked down a very long corridor with huge buildings to both sides (a.k.a. pavilions). We quickly realised, as a friend of a friend said, it’s like “Epcot on steroids”. Unless you have lots of stamina and many days to allot to the Expo (locals), it is difficult to cover absolutely everything.

So back to the question, how to organise so many different themes in one space?

The Expo created 9 clusters: Rice, Cocoa and Chocolate, Coffee, Fruits and Legumes, Spices, Bio-Mediterraneum, Islands, Sea and Food, Cereals and Tubers and Arid Zones. Clusters grouped several countries which focused on explaining that specific crop, good or commodity (or in map lingo: ‘genius loci or food chain’). Each cluster was signalled by a big installation showcasing the beginning of the section. Click on the pictures to see the detail of these market-like installations.

 

On the first day we visited the Fruit and Legumes and Coffee clusters. We weren’t particularly impressed by the former. Granted, each country had a limited display room but beyond seeing jars and bags of soya, lentils and beans, we didn’t actually learn anything. Most of these countries had other types of goods on display to sell (i.e. bracelets, wooden sculptures), the message wasn’t clear and although we understand that by September people working in the expo are tired, some expositors were completely disengaged from visitors.

My favourite cluster was Cereals and Tubers because it had a very special garden in the centre. There was plenty of vegetation in the Expo, but this garden was different. It was actually a temporary crop area with the most important cereals and tubers on display. Yes, I mean real plants. How cool!

 

Rice, wheat and maize, make up 60% of the world’s calories. We go to the supermarket to buy oats, bread, tortillas, pasta, noodles and corn flakes all neatly packed in a box. Rarely do we remember the plants that provide the prime ingredient and what they look like. This garden showed each crop and having learnt how important biosecurity protection measures are, especially for a country with agricultural production like Italy, I was able to appreciate seeing real cassava, rice, wheat, maize and even quinoa plants as part of this learning experience at this Expo. This is something to highlight because I can only imagine all the paperwork, procedures and maintenance to make sure all plants on display were there and in good condition. I visited during September (the fifth month of the Expo) and guess what? All the plants were still alive. The rice looked a bit yellowish, but it was alive! I thoroughly enjoyed this bit of the exhibition and would love to set up a similar garden to let kids and adults touch and see the plants that make up the bulk of their daily breakfasts and takeouts.

Click here to read part 2.