Human history shows us that relationship between people of different cultures is not always easy. When we want, we are able to rely on our human commonness and create rapport. When we do not want, we struggle to find a basis to ignore or dominate others. The strategies have always been the same: show the other as inferior, animal like, demolish his humanness. Through this process, we are able to look down at others and so feel in the right to dominate, either to civilize or dispense with them. This is what happened in Europe and North America when the Western world opened the season of colonial adventures. For the first time, white westerners came in contact with exotic peoples, new cultures and ways of life. It was more than easy to take advantage of the new encounters to build up the idea of the savage, who – of course – can be redeemed by the colonialist.
How this process was born and developed is at the centre of an exhibition at the Museum of Quai Branly in Paris. Human zoos, the invention of the savage is an exposition by former footballer Lilian Thuram – who worked with scientific curators Pascal Blanchard and Nanette Snoep – to propose visitors a journey through the creation of the mythology of race superiority in the past centuries.
“Ever since I was a child, I have felt moved to question certain prejudices, and this questioning has led me to an interest in slavery, colonization, and the sociology, economics and history of racism. Ten years ago I learned about human zoos. This was a revelation. I was surprised by the magnitude of the phenomenon which, over the years, developed into a mass culture. The images of these men, women and children – exposed and exhibited, shown and humiliated – appeared on postcards, posters, painting, crockery and souvenirs”, says Thuram.
The interest in this phenomenon urged the former footballer to organize this exhibition. More than five hundred objects, images and movies are on display guiding the visitor to realize how and why human diversity was taken to signify superiority and inferiority. In the XV century, Europeans came in contact with the occasional foreigner whom they looked at with a mix of curiosity and interest. It was the case of the first Amerindians brought back by Colombo, the Siamese freaks brought by Venetian merchants, or the Inuit introduced at court in Copenhagen.
Yet it was only in the XIX century that a new genre appeared: ethnic shows. Circuses and ad hoc exhibitions presented the public with ‘indigenous’ people in replicas of their habitat. Exotic people, freaks, anyone with abnormal features would be put on display. It was the birth of human zoos. The public was not going to see exotic animals kept in cages, but human beings interesting for their strangeness and backwardness. The formula was successful and found its apex in the international shows of Paris (1877), Hamburg (1874), Amsterdam (1883), Paris (1889), Chicago (1893), Barcelona, (1896), Brussels (1897), Osaka (1903) and Wembley (1925).
These public shows were the opportunity sought after by many armchairs anthropologists. Instead of taking part in long, costly – and dangerous – expeditions, it was much more comfortable to study different ‘races’ during public display near home. People were photographed, measured and compared with European types and … primates. People were discovering the savages, and science was lending credibility to the growing prejudices about non Western peoples.
Human zoos, the invention of the savage, focuses also on personal histories. It is the case of Saartje Baartmna, nicknamed the Hottentot Venus, who went on display in Paris and London in the early XIX century. She was portrayed as the ultimate savage, with ridiculously giant physical features. People were enticed by the novelty and by the underscored sexual appeal of the encounter. Less known is the life of Ota Benga, a pigmy from the Congo who went on display at the St Luis World’s Fair in 1904. Benga was then 19 years old, and he was the ‘living evidence’ that demonstrated a link in the chain of human evolution. After the fair in Louisiana, Benga was exhibited in other towns, to reach New York where he went on display at the American Museum of Natural History. There he was placed in a cage in the Monkey House, next to an orang-utan. The show ended prematurely because of protests by the clergy. Benga was moved to an orphanage and then to Lynchburg, Virginia. When in 1916 he realized he would not be able to return to Africa, he killed himself.
The exhibition ends with a video of people who are different today – a gay couple, a gipsy from Romania, etc. – who speak about their life experiences. A reminder that even today we might be caught in the web of creating minorities of freaks to suite our taste. The Paris exhibition is well prepared and a visit is valuable. Also important is the exhibition catalogue which is well edited and contains plenty of material and analysis. The exhibition will run until June and it hosted in the same building of the Museum, which also propose an interesting journey through the cultures of our planet.