World’s Exposition 1998 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Lisbon World’s Exposition, Portugal’s first world’s fair since 1940, commemorated the 500th anniversary of Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India and was designed to heighten international awareness of the need for management of ocean resources.

Summary of Event

Hosting a world exposition in 1998 was a challenge that Portugal accepted quite willingly. The fair brought together, in the last exposition of the twentieth century, more than 150 countries and international organizations. Much of the anticipation preceding Expo ’98’s opening came from the fact that the last world’s fair Portugal had hosted, Exposição do Mundo Português in 1940, had opened in a vastly different political climate, on the same day as the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. Because of World War II, that fair had less foreign participation than was originally expected, and it attracted nowhere near the attention given to the competing New York World’s Fair. Expo ’98[Expo Ninety Eight] World’s fairs[Worlds fairs] World’s Exposition (1998)[Worlds Exposition (1998)] Lisbon World Exposition [kw]World’s Exposition 1998 (May 22-Sept. 30, 1998) [kw]Exposition 1998, World’s (May 22-Sept. 30, 1998) Expo ’98[Expo Ninety Eight] World’s fairs[Worlds fairs] World’s Exposition (1998)[Worlds Exposition (1998)] Lisbon World Exposition [g]Europe;May 22-Sept. 30, 1998: World’s Exposition 1998[10040] [g]Portugal;May 22-Sept. 30, 1998: World’s Exposition 1998[10040] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 22-Sept. 30, 1998: World’s Exposition 1998[10040] [c]Environmental issues;May 22-Sept. 30, 1998: World’s Exposition 1998[10040] [c]United Nations;May 22-Sept. 30, 1998: World’s Exposition 1998[10040] Cardoso e Cunha, António Coelho, Tony

The International Exhibitions Bureau categorized the 1998 Lisbon fair as a “specialized exhibition” that focused on a specific theme—the oceans, considered a world to discover and, in addition, an important natural resource, necessary for the survival of the human race. Expo ’98 began on May 22 and closed on September 30; it was opened by the president of the Portugal, Jorge Sampaio. The maritime theme, “Oceans, a Heritage for the Future,” was not a new one. Previous world’s fairs (Okinawa, 1975; New Orleans, 1984; Genoa, 1992) had used similar themes.

For Portugal, Expo ’98 was a chance to honor a milestone in its history. On May 22, 1498, the Portuguese armada, commanded by Vasco da Gama, anchored at Calicut, on the western coast of Hindustan (now India). This was the discovery of the sea route to India, thus fulfilling the plan organized by King João II. The rounding of the Cape of Good Hope and the crossing of the Indian Ocean were some of the highest points in maritime history.

In connection with Expo ’98, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) sponsored an International Year of the Ocean International Year of the Ocean, U.N. (1998) to heighten international awareness of the need for management of ocean resources and protection of the marine environment. As part of this, scientific research became an important part of the theme, with the United States an active participant. Special exhibitions were sponsored by the U.S. Navy, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Geographic Society, and numerous ocean-related agencies and educational organizations. A symposium (June 15) on the Year of the Ocean involved experts such as Jean-Michel Cousteau, Cousteau, Jean-Michel who participated from an underwater location off the California coast, and marine biologist and explorer Sylvia Earle, Earle, Sylvia who was video-linked with the conference “Changing the Sea: A Vision for Our Blue Planet,” in Monterey, California, an event that also featured President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Expo ’98 was instrumental in developing an area of Lisbon that was long neglected. A Petrogal oil refinery and the fuel tanks had to be removed from what was supposed to be the exposition site. New developments included the extension of the underground public transportation network, the building of a new rail terminal, and a new rail link to the south side of the river Tranclo.

The maritime theme was reflected in the national pavilions of Portugal. The Pavilion of Portugal narrated the adventures that the medieval navigators suffered in search of new routes to their destinations, as well as the importance that was granted to the world of navigation. The Oceans Pavilion (now the Lisbon Oceanarium), designed by the American architect Peter Chermayeff and intended for permanent use after the exposition ended, was the centerpiece of Expo ’98. With an innovative and pleasant design re-creating the global ocean, the oceanarium reproduced four habitats of the world (the Indian, Pacific, Antarctic, and Atlantic Oceans), with 250 marine species brought from those remote places.

The Oceans Pavilion, now known as now the Lisbon Oceanarium, the centerpiece of Expo ‘98.

(Nol Aders/CC-BY-SA2.5)

The Utopian Pavilion, one of the most popular pavilions, was a great multimedia show that re-created myths and legends related to the sea. The Knowledge of the Seas Pavilion highlighted the development of humanity’s relationship to the seas, how humans learned to navigate and to explore them, and how to use their resources. The Water Pavilion, based on a project conceived at the Experimentarium (the Danish Science Center), presented twenty-five interactive experiments, including natural phenomena such as hurricanes and water tornadoes, which were re-created by machines. The Pavilion of the Future offered a three-dimensional film and other visual attractions intended to change viewer attitudes toward the oceans. Finally, the Virtual Reality Pavilion offered an imaginary voyage through space and time to a destination at the bottom of the ocean and a forty-minute trip to an observation station located on the ocean floor, with a return trip in a high-speed elevator.

The national pavilions were complemented by gardens, water parks, and a nautical exhibition in the docks of Expo ’98 that harbored vessels from the Philippines, Brazil, Croatia, and Macao; oceanographic ships from Germany and from Great Britain; Finnish and Russian icebreakers; two French packet submarines; the oceanographic ship USNS Pathfinder; and school ships from several countries.

There were 155 countries and international organizations that participated at Expo ’98. The most visited foreign pavilions were those of Japan, Finland, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, France and Holland, each with more than a million visitors. Surprisingly, neither Australia nor New Zealand attended the exhibition. However, countries like Belarus, Somalia, and Iraq did come. International organizations included the Council of Europe, the International Red Cross, the European Commission, the United Nations, and the International Olympic Committee.

U.S. participation had mixed results. The National Geographic Society National Geographic Society sponsored the U.S. Pavilion, and the U.S. effort was headed by former U.S. congressman Tony Coelho, a Portuguese American with close ties to that community. As U.S. commissioner general, Coelho was successful in raising funds for the construction of the U.S. Pavilion; he spent two months lobbying Congress for funding and was able to persuade the committees that they should support NIEHS and the Navy by introducing language in the appropriations bills for those two agencies stating that they should support U.S. participation in Lisbon. Both agencies complied, with the Navy contributing $2.5 million and the NIEHS contributing $4 million. This represented 84 percent of the funding for Lisbon, making it the first world exposition since Brisbane that was primarily federally funded.

When the fair was over, a State Department investigation in 2000 revealed that Coelho had conducted bad management practices, such as making questionable payments, hiring relatives, and handing out patronage jobs to cronies, when he was overseeing the U.S. Pavilion.


Turnout at Expo ’98 was lower than predicted. Original figures were estimated at fifteen million, but the final projection was closer to ten million. Questions of corruption were uncovered at high levels. Aside from Coelho’s misdeeds, a land-sale scam resulted in the arrest of one of the exposition’s top executives and the suspension or resignation of others. Auditors alleged that millions of dollars were skimmed off the top of real estate sales of land zoned for building after the fair ended. There were also police investigations of graft in the awarding of computer contracts and in the leasing of cruise ships intended for housing during the fair.

Expo ’98 prompted a vast modernization of the city of Lisbon and increased revenue from real estate sales. Sponsorship deals were almost twice what was projected, and the fair’s deficit, as a result, did not increase. Expo ’98[Expo Ninety Eight] World’s fairs[Worlds fairs] World’s Exposition (1998)[Worlds Exposition (1998)] Lisbon World Exposition

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, D. N. “Lisbon’s World Fair Provides a Dramatic Display of Modern Design That Offsets the City’s Declining Historic Core.” Architectural Record 186, no. 8 (1998): 29-31. One of Expo ’98’s strengths was that it forced the Portuguese government to modernize its capital city. Article describes the various transformations that took place.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Expo ’98 News: Bulletin of the 1998 Lisbon International Exposition. Lisbon: Parque Expo ’98, 1993-1998. In the absence of any full history of the Lisbon exposition, this official journal of the Commission of the Lisbon International Exposition contains the most information. Begun in September, 1993, it starts with the planning and the construction up through the opening and the ongoing activities for the six months the fair operated. Not a critical analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roche, Maurice. Megaevents and Modernity: Olympics, Expos, and the Growth of Global Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000. Examines the history of “megaevents” from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Bibliography.

U.S. Congress Protects Coasts and Marine Sanctuaries

Cousteau Society Is Founded

U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated

U.S. Congress Requires Ships to Safeguard Marine Environment

Mediterranean Nations Sign Antipollution Pact

Portugal and Spain Enter the European Community

Categories: History