Human Zoos and Being Human

humanzoogermanyAnthropozoological displays—often associated more succinctly with the phenomenon of the ‘human zoo’—are public exhibitions of human beings, usually conceived to demonstrate in an exaggerated and stereotypical fashion the cultural and social differences between national and social groups. The term ‘human zoo’ designates a range of practices, not least because the term in its wider understandings can describe more generally various forms of curiosity towards those considered somehow different. The geneaology of the phenomenon is usually associated with the early modern period and in particular the first significant and sustained contacts between European and non-European cultures, when indigenous people from South America were brought to France, Great Britain and Spain and displayed to the European public. In 1550, a royal procession in Rouen before the French King Henry II featured Tupinamba Indians from Brazil, an event that inspired Montaigne to write his essay ‘Des cannibales’.

240px-baartmanThe display in London and Paris of Saartjie Baartman (pejoratively known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’) for the purposes of science, entertainment and the satisfaction of a more general prurience is often taken as the foundation of modern manifestations of the phenomenon. It was, however, with the advent of universal and colonial exhibitions—most notably the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World’s Fairs—that ‘human zoos’ were institutionalized and linked to the elaboration of both colonial ideology and scientific racism. In parallel, a number of impresarios and showmen—one of the most notable examples being Carl Hagenbeck, owner of a major zoo in Hamburg—began to arrange highly successful tours of indigenous populations from various parts of the world, a practice that included the development of ‘villages’ displaying European populations (e.g., Breton, Irish and Welsh) minoritized in their wider cultural contexts. Particularly prominent involved Native Americans, and included the ‘Buffalo Bill Wild West Show’, which toured throughout Europe and visited Liverpool at least twice. With the advent of cinema and the rise of anti-colonial sentiment (or at least a growing anxiety surrounding the ideological foundations of empire), ‘human zoos’ fell rapidly into abeyance, and indeed became increasingly rare following World War II. The phenomenon was still in evidence at Expo 58, also known as the Brussels World’s Fair, but this was a rare example. Forms of display associated with ‘human zoos’ continue to be evident, however, explicitly in a number of recent controversial attempts to include humans alongside animals in the context of conventional zoos, but also in hybrid performance pieces such as Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, a production of which was abandoned at the Barbican in 2014 after vocal protests centring on the extent to which the show replicated rather than critiqued the racism at the heart of the ‘human zoo’. Focus on ‘human zoos’ has also formed part of a more general debate on the treatment of human remains in museums, and the ways in which colonial racism can persist in unquestioned display practices. Some commentators see the spirit of the ‘human zoo’ present in popular forms such as reality TV

Despite the popularity of the practice in the period 1870-1930, and the proliferation of iconography and ephemera to which it gave rise, the ‘human zoo’ disappeared rapidly from collective memory. The work of the French public history group ACHAC raised awareness of the phenomenon and began to explore its global complexity, first in a conference in Marseilles in 2000, papers from which appeared in an influential book in 2002. (This has now been translated into several languages, and an English-language edition appeared with Liverpool University Press in 2008). A major exhibition on the subject was held at the Quai Branly in Paris in 2011/12, and a version of this will be on display in Liverpool later this month as part of the Being Human festival. The exhibition, which covers a range of historical periods, geographical locations and national contexts, raises many questions about ‘human zoos’, and the forms of observation they involve. Drawing on the rich iconography surrounding the phenomenon, it also forces us to address the ethics of display and the extent to which access to often challenging imagery is essential to understanding this historical practice and its contemporary afterlives. The exhibition was developed in association with the Lilian Thuram Foundation, and is part of a wider commitment to understanding the historical roots of contemporary racism—and to contributing to anti-racist education: ‘You are not born a racist, you become one. […] Racism is an intellectual, construction and more than anything, a political one.’

The exhibition will be held at the Kuumba Imani Centre in Liverpool from 17-25 November, and will be complemented by three events in which audiences will be invited to learn more about humans on display and to engage in debates on the subject. The exhibition will be launched with a roundtable on 21 November at 5pm, with speakers including Sandrine Lemaire (ACHAC, France), Shahmima Akhtar (Birmingham) and Lara Atkin (QMUL). At the University of Liverpool on 22 November, there will be a screening of the documentary on ‘human zoos’ produced by ACHAC (in French, with English subtitles); and a concluding panel discussion on ‘DISPLAYING HUMANS: HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVES’ will be held in the Anthony Walker Education Centre at the International Slavery Museum at 3pm on 23 November, with Shahmima Akhtar (Birmingham), Lara Atkin (QMUL), Stephen Kenny (Liverpool), Emily Trafford (Manchester) and Karen Salt (Nottingham).

Full details—including information about registration—are available here.


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