Why Putting Humans in Zoo Exhibits is a Good Thing Now

Lately, animal zoos have stirred controversy with everything from surplus animal breeding programs to zoochosis in captive animals. Now, two artists are reviving another kind of zoo that many believe should’ve stayed in the past: the human zoo.

Norways Human Zoo

Human zoos were once status symbols where “the [wild and exotic] Other” was captured, conquered and displayed.

As reported in The Daily Beast, two artists in Norway are making the world confront this unfortunate history. Their human zoo art exhibit, filled with 300 volunteers and called “European Attraction Limited,” is opening after it originally debuted one century ago.

Human zoos give a whole different meaning to people watching. Norwegians gathered to goggle at the Sengalese, not Congolese, people living in “an exotic cluster of sub-Saharan dwellings and traditionally dressed inhabitants.” In a blatantly obvious exercise of colonial power, the Congo Village had been part of Norway’s constitution signing anniversary celebration.

The goals of European Attraction Limited are twofold: 1) to remind us of past colonial mistakes that seem to be forgotten, and 2) to display Norway’s persistent racism in light of what they believe is “an increasingly xenophobic continent.”

History of Human Zoos

Human zoos aren’t unique to Norway. Spanish scholar, Sánchez-Gómez notes that while putting people on display is nothing new (e.g., think about burial ceremonies), the way that we understand human zoos took shape in the second half of the 18th century. They were full of “racial spectacles, erotism and a few drops of anthropological science.”

“Authentic Savage” Dancing? Check.

“Authentic Savage” Screams, Shouts and Chants? Check.

“Authentic Savage” Animal Blood Sacrifices? Check.

Forgotten Stories

It’s impossible to write about every living person put on display because they are part of a past that we tried to forget. Here are a couple of prominent examples about people who should not be forgotten:

Ota Benga

The Daily Mail tells Ota Benga’s story. In 1906, Ota was brought from Congo to America to live in ‘the monkey cage.’

His claims to fame were that he was a pygmy, his teeth had been sharpened to resemble daggers and he was promoted as “The Missing Link” between primates and humans. When he arrived, he was chased, yelled at and laughed at. After 20 million visitors and countless 25 cent photos, Ota made it back home. He seemed to have a normal life because he married a local girl. However, when his bride was bit by a venomous snake and died, he became an outcast because the villagers believed he was cursed.

Ota pleaded to return to the States, and his life did not improve. Ota had one of his biggest fans, Adolf Hitler, to thank for that. Hitler was intrigued by Ota and used the boy as the basis for his “scientific racism” and the Holocaust. While Ota didn’t live long as a “living example of racial inferiority” on display, his quality of life never was the same. He was known to slap his chest and say: “I am a man. I am a man.”

He never had a home in the States or his homeland. After a decade of first reaching American soil, Ota became depressed and committed suicide by putting a bullet through his head. He was only 32-years-old.

Sara Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. Hottentot Venus

South African History Online recounts Sara “Saartjie” Baartman’s life. Sara was born in the Eastern Cape and was an orphan by her adolescent years. After personal heartaches, Sara was sold into slavery and later worked as a domestic servant.

She eventually would travel to Europe to continue being a domestic servant and to “be exhibited for entertainment purposes.” It’s unclear if Sara willingly went or if she knew exactly what she was signing up for. Sara’s selling points were her dark complexion, her large buttocks and her elongated labia.

Sara was eventually sold to an exotic animal lover. He put Sara in a cage next to a baby rhino, and he would direct her like a circus ringmaster. Sara was a hit with the public and with the scientific community; like Ota, a naturalist also believed that Sara was “the missing link” between animals and humans.

In 1816, Sara died of unknown causes — alcoholism, smallpox or pneumonia are possibilities — when she was only 26-years-old. Sara couldn’t even get respect in death since the naturalist that appointed her “the missing link” made “a plaster cast of her body, pickled her brain and genitals and placed them into jars.” Unsurprisingly, her body parts were also put on display. Finally, almost 200 years later, at the request of President Nelson Mandela, Sara was given a proper burial in South Africa and put to rest.

While some might be offended by Norway’s 2014 European Attraction Limited, the exhibit is nothing compared to what used to happen. In this case, art, culture and history really have come together to remind us of our past mistakes, how far we’ve come in racial equality and how much work we have left. I’m glad to see that human zoos and their history are once again in the forefront of our memory (it took an anthropology degree for me to first learn about them) because the lives of Ota Benga and Sara “Saartjie” Baartman shouldn’t be forgotten. I like to think that one day we’ll look back at animal zoos and other animal captivity institutions with the same sadness, anger and regret, but only time will tell.

Photo Credit: Teresaaaa


Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper3 years ago


Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

Sad stories!!

Mark Donners
Mark Donner3 years ago

how about move all humans to Detroit, fence them in and throw away the key.. except for the ones who care about animals and are environmentally aware.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

interesting concept.

Christine Stewart
Christine S3 years ago

If the exhibit is done properly, and respectfully, we could learn about other cultures from the people themselves- I guess there is a fine line between educating the public and denigrating the subject...

Latonya W.
Latonya W3 years ago

every and any thing we do in life can teach us what and how it feels when its done to us...

Val M.
Val M3 years ago


Marianne R.
Marianne R3 years ago


Rose Becke3 years ago

What is the point ?

Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert3 years ago