A new exhibition at the Quai Branly museum near the Eiffel Tower in Paris documents the shocking history of indigenous peoples being placed as exhibits in zoos and traveling shows. The subjects throughout the exhibition are categorized in four archetypes: the savage, the artist, the freak and the exotic ambassador.
The exhibition, titled ‘The invention of the savage,’ is curated by the former French international footballer turned anti-racism campaigner Lilian Thuram. Thuram is descended from African slaves brought to the French West Indian island of Guadeloupe.
Right up until the 1950s, people from colonized countries were ‘exhibited’ in Europe and America.
The History of People as Exhibits
It started in the 16th century royal courts with the arrival of ‘strange foreigners,’ such as the parade of Brazil’s Tupinamba ‘savages’ for the royal entrance of King Henri II in 1550 in Rouen, or the return of Captain James Cook to England with Tahitian ‘Noble Savage’ Omai in 1774.
The early 19th century brought the emergence of a new genre: ethnic shows. They first developed in theater cafés before spreading to larger and larger venues and being included in exhibitions and circuses.
The first ethnic and freak shows added a new element to popular culture by regularly bringing together exotic people alongside ‘freaks.’ One such is Sarah “Saartje” Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus” (pictured) from South Africa, who was exhibited in London and Paris.
At this time, theories were starting to arise on the classification and organization of humanity and on the concept of race, an academic way of thinking that marked humanities throughout the 19th century.
Between 1870 and 1939, many venues started specializing in ethnic performance like the Crystal Palace, Barnum and Bailey in Madison Square, the Paris Folies Bergères or the famous Panoptikum in Berlin.
Visitors were introduced to “actors of savageness” who become true genre professionals: aboriginals, ‘lip-plate women,’ Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers or oriental belly dancers. There was also the first black clown in France called “Chocolat,” who was drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec, and the legendary Buffalo Bill, whose show revolved around the native American Indian archetype, and which created the American West imagery we’re all familiar with today.
Starting in Paris in 1877, tribes and groups began to be exhibited. This led to major tours which went on until the beginning of World War II. These went beyond Europe, to America, Japan and the colonies themselves (Australia, India and Indochina), and attracted hundreds of million of visitors.
To increase the number of visitors, the Cincinnati Zoo invited 100 Sioux Native Americans to establish a village at the site in 1896. The Sioux lived at the zoo for three months.
In 1906, socialite and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant, head of the New York Zoological Society, had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo alongside apes and other animals.
Black clergymen in New York took great offense. The Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, said:
Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.
In 1931, the great-grandparents of Thuram’s World Cup teammate Christian Karembeu came to Paris from New Caledonia. They considered themselves ambassadors but were displayed in a cage at the Jardin d’Acclimation in Paris. They were later shown in Germany, along with about 100 other New Caledonian Kanaks and described as “cannibals.”
The last “living spectacles” were Congo villagers exhibited in Belgium at the World’s Fair in 1958. Between 1800 and 1958, it is estimated that over a billion spectators marveled at more than 35,000 individuals exhibited throughout the world.
The exhibition features paintings, sculptures, posters, postcards, movies, photographs, moldings, dioramas, miniatures and costumes and explores the lines between exotic individuals and freaks, science and voyeurism, exhibitionism and spectacle. It also questions visitors on their own contemporary biases.
While the ‘human zoo’ gradually disappeared in the 30s and then finally ended in the 1950s, they had already established their effect of setting a boundary between the exhibited and the spectators. Which begs the question: does that line still remain today?
Thuram told The Guardian that he was appalled that Hamburg Zoo still had sculptures of Indians and Africans at its entrance, a sign that humans as well as animals were on display.
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Video: Hottentot Venus (the story of Saartjie Baartman) by Monica Clarke, Storyteller
Picture: The Hottentot Venus in the Salon of the Duchess of Berry, 1830, by Sebastien Coeure