This AHRC funded (doctoral studentship) project examined the development of mega events in the the modern era, such as International Expos, World Fairs, and Olympic Games, and their relationship to archaeology and heritage through comparing three significant examples from London’s recent history: The Great Exhibition of 1851; the 1951 Festival of Britain’s South Bank Exhibition; and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Taking a contemporary archaeological and critical heritage studies approach, I argued that such mega events – defined as a genre of large, transitory and internationally-focussed cultural spectacles – leave a unique set of traces upon their host societies and that, as a result, we can observe several key ‘signatures’ which characterise all mega events and their long term roles in society. These signatures include a quixotic and tense relationship with a variety of conceptualisations of the role of the past in the present – both in terms of mega event site histories and, more broadly, national and imperial ‘stories’; a concern with their own historicity and a sense of exceptionality – the ‘largest’, ‘the first’ for example; and, despite their often future-oriented rhetoric, a key concern with using heritage narratives and the selective visions these can offer to legitimise an event’s presence and to counter opposition. Each case study was examined in detail using a broad variety of archaeological and heritage methods using London’s mega events as a prism through which to see the changing role of such spectacles in western modernity more broadly over the last two centuries. I demonstrated for the first time that such events must not be seen simply as one-off temporary spectacles, but rather are drastic and often devastating interventions in the urban environment that can have a dramatic impact upon a broad variety of forms of heritage over the long term. Overall I argued that, if we are ever to create a more ethically engaged model for the hosting of future events, mega events must be subjected to long-term critical examination, and that we must realise that even when events officially close for good, their continuing roles and importance should not be ignored.