News / Europe

At Paris Exhibit, a Savage Display

Former French football player Lilian Thuram, who curated the Paris
Former French football player Lilian Thuram, who curated the Paris "Human Zoos" exhibit, Nov. 28, 2011.
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.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

America's Most Exotic Presidential Pets

From alligators to bears, the White House has been home to some unusual presidential pets over the years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs