Shows ex­hibit­ing people in their na­tive sur­round­ing were com­mon in the 19th century


IN 1914, Nor way cel­e­brated the 100th year of its con­sti­tu­tion with a fair in its cap­i­tal, Oslo. Opened by Nor­we­gian monarch Haakon vii, the fair’s big­gest draw was a hu­man zoo. More than 1.5 mil­lion people gawked at 80 men, women and chil­dren brought from dif­fer­ent parts of Africa and then con­fined to a thatched hut “vil­lage”, Congo Vil­lage, for five months. Urd, a Nor­we­gian mag­a­zine, con­cluded at the end of the ex­hi­bi­tion, “It’s won­der­ful that we are white”.

Nor­way is re-stag­ing Congo Vil­lage to cel­e­brate its 200th an­niver­sary.The project is the brain­child of artists Mo­hamed Ali Fad­labi and Lars Cuzner, who say the ig­no­rance around Nor­way’s racist past in­spired them to re-cre­ate the hu­man zoo. Quite pre­dictably, the reen­act­ment has at­tracted con­tro­versy. Rune Ber­glund Steen of the Nor­we­gian Cen­tre Against Racism ini­tially de­scribed the project as “de­grad­ing”. Steen later re­canted, say­ing the ex­hibit could be pos­i­tive. “But the Congo Vil­lage of 2014 won’t stand as re­sound­ing an­swer to 1914,but as a very con­fus­ing echo.”

The 1914 ex­hi­bi­tion was part of a nearly century-old Euro­pean tra­di­tion. Says his­to­rian Pas­cal Blan­chard, “The pur­pose of cre­at­ing these hu­man zoos was to cre­ate a clear di­vide be­tween so-called su­pe­rior and in­fe­rior hu­man be­ings... Sci­en­tific claims got mar­ried to pop en­ter­tain­ment.”

Venus Hot­ten­tot is an apt ex­am­ple. Born around 1790 in South Africa, she was en­slaved by Dutch colonists when barely a teenager. Venus’ cap­tors re-named her Sarah Baart­man and sold her to a Parisian an­i­mal trainer. The an­i­mal trainer fas­ci­nated by the young woman’s phys­i­cal fea­tures—in­clud­ing enor­mous hips and elon­gated labia typ­i­cal of the Khoi people along the Gam­toos River— de­cided she was ideal ex­hibit for a pub­lic fas­ci­nated by the new “sci­en­tific study of race”. Venus was turned over to the Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in Lon­don. On her death, she was ex­am­ined by French anatomist Ge­orges Cu­vier, and her brain and sex or­gans were kept on dis­play at the Parisian Musee de l’Homme un­til 1974. Fol­low­ing a re­quest by Nel­son Man­dela that her re­mains be re­turned to her home­land in the Gam­toos Val­ley—and fol­low­ing fierce de­bate

in the French Na­tional As­sem­bly—what was left of “Venus Hot­ten­tot” was buried in 2002.

In Au­gust 1835,Amer­i­can cir­cus mag­nate PT Bar­num paid one R W Lind­say US $1,000 for the rights to the story of Joice Heth. The story, Lind­say ex­plained to Bar­num, was that the el­derly African-Amer­i­can woman was a slave owned by Au­gus­tine Wash­ing­ton (Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s fa­ther) and nursed the young Ge­orge. With this story, Bar­num pa­raded the blind and nearly paral­ysed Heth across New Eng­land ad­ver­tis­ing her as a 161-year-old woman who was “the great­est nat­u­ral and na­tional cu­rios­ity in the world”. People thronged to touch the hands that held the baby Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton. Heath died af­ter seven months on Bar­num’s ex­hi­bi­tion cir­cuit. A pub­lic au­topsy was or­gan­ised to de­ter­mine Heth’s true age. Fif­teen hun­dred view­ers were charged $0.50 each to watch a doc­tor dis­sect the old woman. She was found to be 75-80 years old. Bar­num ad­mit­ted he had been bam­boo­zled by Lind­say into be­liev­ing Heth’s story.

Hu­man zoos, how­ever, came into be­ing in the 1870s when Ger­man an­i­mal trader Carl Ha­gen­beck built on the in­cip­i­ent idea of ethno­graphic ex­hibits. At Ham­burg’s Tier­park Ha­gen­beck zoo— which Ha­gen­beck founded and which still car­ries his name—he ex­hib­ited Samoan and Sami people as “purely nat­u­ral” pop­u­la­tions. The Ham­burg res­i­dent trav­elled to dif­fer­ent parts of the world tak­ing people cap­tive for his zoo. Ac­cord­ing to Hans Mülchi, maker of doc­u­men­tary film Hu­man Zoo: The Story of Calafate, Ha­gen­beck of­ten re­ceived govern­ment sup­port.The Chilean film­maker says on an ex­pe­di­tion to Chile, the Ger­man an­i­mal trader en­listed hu­man ex­hibits for his tour,The Sav­ages from Tierra del Fuego, which he took to Leipzig, Berlin, Monaco, Stuttgart, Nurem­berg, Zurich and Paris.

In 1876, Ha­gen­beck sent a col­lab­o­ra­tor to Egyp­tian Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and Nu­bians.The Nu­bian ex­hibit toured

An­thro­pol­o­gists stud­ied fam­i­lies on dis­play at "eth­no­log­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions" and col­lected data for their work, much of which con­trib­uted to racial the­o­ries of the pe­riod

Paris, Lon­don and Berlin.It in­spired Parisian naturalist Ge­of­froy de Saint-Hi­laire to or­gan­ise two “eth­no­log­i­cal spec­ta­cles” in 1877 that pre­sented Nu­bians and Inuit. That year, the au­di­ence at Jardin Zoologique D’ac­cli­mata­tion—an amuse­ment park in Paris, which de Saint-Hi­laire headed—dou­bled to one mil­lion. Be­tween 1877 and 1912,Jardin held about 30 “eth­no­log­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions”.

The “eth­no­log­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions” were pro­gen­i­tors of a se­ries of hu­man zoos in France. Ac­cord­ing to Blan­chard, “Men and women from the colonies were lured into join­ing paid troupes that toured in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions from Mar­seille to New York, where they were ex­ploited by agents and colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors.” The Colo­nial Ex­hi­bi­tions in Mar­seilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) dis­played hu­mans in cages, of­ten nude or semi-nude. Nearly 34 mil­lion people at­tended the six-month-long Colo­nial Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1931. In con­trast, a counter-ex­hi­bi­tion, The Truth on the Colonies, or­gan­ised by French Com­mu­nist Party, at­tracted few vis­i­tors.

Says Blan­charad, “For the vis­i­tors, go­ing to Colo­nial Ex­hi­bi­tions was akin to go­ing to cir­cus, with ex­otic freak shows on of­fer for a cou­ple of francs.” French art his­to­rian Is­abelle Levêque says, “Post­cards show women gush­ing over African ba­bies and men ogling bare­breasted African women.” De­graded liv­ing con­di­tions, dis­eases and low tem­per­a­tures meant that many died on tour. “At Jardin Zoologique D’ac­cli­mata­tion, many hu­man ex­hibits died on show and were buried in the gar­den,” says Blan­chard.The his­to­rian writes that sci­en­tists and an­thro­pol­o­gists grabbed this op­por­tu­nity to study the fam­i­lies on dis­play and col­lect data for their work, much of which con­trib­uted to the racial the­o­ries of the pe­riod.

By the 1930s, hu­man zoos were un­der crit­i­cism for their bla­tant racism and ethno­graphic dis­plays were on the wane. How­ever, the Brussels World’s Fair held in 1958 kept a Con­golese vil­lage on dis­play. Even as late as 1994,an Ivory Coast vil­lage was kept as part of an African sa­fari in Port-Saint-Père, near Nantes, France. In 2005, Lon­don Zoo dis­played hu­mans wear­ing fig leaves, while in 2007 Ade­laide Zoo housed people in a for­mer ape en­clo­sure. They were, of course, al­lowed to re­turn home at night, un­like many of the ear­lier in­car­na­tions of these racist dis­plays.


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