Paris museum exposes history of human zoos | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 09.12.2011
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Paris museum exposes history of human zoos

A new exhibition in Paris charts the long and shameful history of how Europeans showcased non-European peoples. During the colonial era, displaying native people like animals in a zoo, created the image of 'the savage.'

The exhibition room

The artefacts chart how non-Europeans were put on show

The show at the Quai Branly anthropological museum in Paris is called 'Exhibitions: the Creation of the Savage.' Another fitting title would have been 'Human Zoos.' The paintings, postcards, films, posters on display chart the way non-Europeans were put on show during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the colonial era thousands of native people were paraded before Europeans at universal and colonial exhibitions which were akin to circus freak shows. It was like going to the zoo to see armadillos and giraffes.

"It's quite new that in museums we talk about the history of colonialism and this part of the story is completely unknown," Nanette Snoep, the Dutch woman who's in charge of the Quai Branly's colonial collection, says.

"For us it is very important to speak about this because this was real popular entertainment," she adds. It's the first time an exhibition has been made about what she said was a hidden episode in history.

Popular entertainment

A white colonial with a group of 'natives'

The colonials were portrayed as supreme masters

Almost a billion people visited the grand exhibitions organized in Europe, the United States and Japan. At the 1906 St. Louis fair in the United States, for example, there were 20,000 actors from Africa, Asia, America. "It was a huge industry," Snoep says.

Most of the actors were paid. Others were less free. Such as the African pygmy boy Ota Benga who was displayed in a cage with a monkey in New York in 1896. But aside from the question of the exactions and humiliations suffered by people like him is that of the cause these exhibitions served.

Pascal Blanchard, an historian specialized in colonial history, says that "if people believed that something called 'the savage' existed, it wasn't because they'd been reading theoreticians of racial inequality such as the Nineteenth century writer Arthur de Gobineau, it was because they'd seen them! The slogan of the 1996 Chicago exhibition was 'Seeing is knowing'."

Once people had seen what savages looked like and how different they were from them, they believed it, Blanchard says.

"And from there came the chains of thought that would dominate in the West: the ideas that underpinned eugenics, colonialism and Western domination and superiority. So in the space of a century we went from ordering the world in terms of class to ordering the world in terms of race."

City landmarks

And all of this happened in some very familiar places. In London's Wembley Stadium for instance, millions came to gawp at the natives in the 1925 Empire Exhibition. In the Parisian cabaret club Les Folies Bergères the public often paid to see Zulu warriors rather than dancing girls. At Paris's Jardin d'Acclimatation amusement park, people used to be able to see mock-up villages. They were inhabited, for example, by Moroccans or Indochinese people, sitting around in traditional Moroccan or Indochinese garb and occasionally doing typical Moroccan or Indochinese things.

Lilian Thuram

Lilian Thuram is the co-curator and a footballer

"I have understood that racism is, above all, an intellectual construction," says Lilian Thuram, co-curator of the exhibition and a Guadaloupe-born footballer who was one of the heroes of France's World Cup and Euro victories in 1998 and 2000.

One of the exhibits is an instrument which scientists used to measure human skulls in order to try to prove racial differences. Thuram says the racial vision of the world created in human zoos goes some way to explaining why supporters in some stadiums he played in used to make monkey noises when he touched the ball.

Why didn't those people make dog or cat noises? Why an ape noise? Simply because in the hierarchy of so-called races, black people were considered to be the missing link between the ape and Man. Our culture bears the marks of the theory of racial superiority and human zoos but, sometimes, we aren't conscious of all that. If we want to get beyond these problems, we have to understand how this was all put in place," he says.

Eventually, the 'human zoos' went out of fashion. The great decline only came around 1930 – but not because of any moral change of course but because people had something more entertaining to look at than a Rajasthani throwing a pot – the 1930s saw the rise of cinema.

The final curtain came down in Brussels in 1958 when a wind of revolt blew through the Congolese village at the Exposition Universelle. The actors were locally hired for the most part and decided they'd had enough of playing the savage and the village was closed. It proved to be the last.

Author: John Laurenson / hs
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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