Print options

January 30, 2012

At Paris Exhibit, a Savage Display

by Lisa Bryant

Obese people, homosexuals, people with disabilities, people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds - why do we set them apart? The Quai Branly museum in Paris addresses this question by revisiting one of the darkest aspects of Western colonialism - events in the not-so-distant past when humans were put on exhibit, often in cages like animals, in Europe and the United States.

"Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage" sheds light on the origins of racism and prejudice in today's world, a narrative that, according to exhibit curator Nanette Snoep, isn't new.

"Even in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians exhibited dwarfs from the Sudan," she said. "So this is a very, very old story."

And yet it recurs throughout history, as the exhibit reveals, with disturbing frequency.

The Colonial Era
Europeans began exhibiting humans after explorer Christopher Columbus travelled to the Americas in the 15th century. But as recently as the 1950s, people from Africa, Asia and the Americas were displayed in circuses, fairs, parks and freak shows.

"During the 19th century, it became a real entertainment, a real business, to exhibit exotic people and mostly colonial people," said Snoep. "To exhibit someone in a zoo or in international and colonial fairs [was] also a way to justify the colonial project."

And then there were the so-called "freaks and savages" - people with deformities who were put on exhibit.

While many of those caged for touring exhibits - for example, "Hottentot Venus" from South Africa, who was first paraded around Europe in the early 1800s - died, others, like a Togolese man called Nayo Bruce, profited from the phenomenon.

"He went to Berlin in the early 1890s and then very soon, he said 'I will be the businessman, I will be the director of my own village,'" said Snoep. "He organized a sort of Togolese village with his Togolese friends and family and made a tour through Europe for 20 years."

Human exhibits began dying out in the 1930s, as public interest shifted to movies and other forms of entertainment.

A Contemporary Connection
The Quai Branly exhibit, the idea of former French football star Lilian Thuram, takes us to the present day with a video of people who are "different" because of how they look, feel and think.

Thuram, a native of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe who heads a foundation that educates about racism, says the human zoos helped promote racial hierarchy theories developed by 19th century anthropologists.

"According to these 'scientific theories,' the white race was considered superior," he said. "The scale went down to the so-called 'black race,' which was considered the missing link between monkeys and man."

Thurman says these misguided theories persist today, when, for example, he hears football fans make monkey sounds as black players are on the field. He hopes the show, which draws these parallels between past and present, can make people understand racism as an intellectual fabrication that developed historically, and, as such, can be dismantled.

Although prejudice remains, "Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage," which runs through June, will make us think hard about our own origins and, perhaps, consider the kind of world we'd like to one day inhabit.