Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage," Exhibition, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, Through June 2012

Half-naked Africans made to gnaw bones and presented as "cannibals" as they shivered in a mock tribal village in northern France; Native American children displayed at fairgrounds; families from Asia and the South Pacific behind railings in European zoos and dancing Zulus on the London stage.

Paris's most talked-about exhibition of the winter opened on Tuesday with shock and soul-searching over the history of colonial subjects used in human zoos, circuses and stage shows, which flourished until as late as 1958...

--Paris show unveils life in human zoo, The Guardian, Tuesday 29 November 2011
Wow. Finally. The exhibition I have long been waiting to see (and which just might inspire a pilgrimage!)

"Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage," now on view at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris through June 2012, "brings together hundreds of bizarre and shocking artefacts, ranging from posters for 'Male and Female Australian Cannibals' in London... to documentation for mock villages of 'Arabs' and 'Sengalese'" in the recounting of the under-discussed history of "exotic" humans on display from the 19th through the mid 20th Century. These kinds of display were prevalent not only abroad but also here in the United States, where they could be seen at sites ranging from World's Fairs to museums to Coney Island, as explored in the exhibit The Great Coney Island Spectacularium (on view through this summer).

More about the exhibit, from the museum website:
HUMAN ZOOS, The invention of the savage unveils the history of women, men and children brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America to be exhibited in the Western world in circus numbers, theatre or cabaret performances, fairs, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages or international and colonial fairs. The practice started in the 16th Century royal courts and continued to increase until the mid-20th Century in Europe, America and Japan.

A wide array of paintings, sculptures, posters, postcards, movies, photographs, mouldings, dioramas, miniatures and costumes provide insight on the scope of the phenomenon and on the success of the exotic performance industry, which captivated over a billion spectators who, between 1800 and 1958, marvelled at more than 35,000 individuals throughout the world.

Through 600 items and the screening of many film archives, the exhibition shows how this type of performance, when used as propaganda and entertainment, has fashioned the Western perspective and deeply influenced a certain perception of the Other for nearly five centuries.

The exhibition explores the sometimes fine lines between exotic individuals and freaks, science and voyeurism, exhibitionism and spectacle. It also questions visitors on their own contemporary biases.

While the exhibitions gradually disappear in the 30s, they have by then already had their effect, of setting a boundary between the exhibited and the spectators. Which begs the question: does that line still remain today?

Exhibition Path
Human zoos, The invention of the savage aims at giving back their name to women, men and children used as extras, circus freaks, actors and dancers, by telling their diverse and forgotten stories.

Based on research started over ten years ago (Pascal Blanchard, Human zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Empire, Liverpool University Press, 2008), a corpus of several thousand documents from over 200 international museums and private collections (including the Prado Museum, the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the British Library, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, the Frankfurt historical museum, the musée du quai Branly and the private collection gathered by the Achac research group), and cross cooperation with over thirty countries, this is the first major exhibition to internationally approach what has been called the ‘human zoos’.

In a scenography inspired by the world of theatre, the exhibition historically and thematically approaches the staging of so-called ‘exotics’ or ‘freaks’, as well as the reactions to these popular scientific or avant-garde shows throughout the world. In an audio guide, Lilian Thuram provides his comments to visitors as they walk through the exhibition to view posters, photographs, sculptures and other items, putting them in their specific context.


The first Act features the 15th and 18th Century arrival of exotic people in Europe, and their consideration as ‘strange foreigners’, categorized in four archetypes throughout the exhibition: the savage, the artist, the freak and the exotic ambassador.

Various media reported on the parade of Brazil’s Tupinamba ‘savages’ for the royal entrance of King Henri II in 1550 in Rouen, on the arrival of Siamese ambassadors at the Court of Versailles in 1686, on the 1654 presentation of Inuits to King Frederik II in Copenhagen and on the return of Captain James Cook to England with Tahitian ‘Noble Savage’ Omai in 1774. The latter inspired a play that was presented in Paris and London for many years…

The exhibition also features a famous portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus painted by Lavinia Fontana (1585), depicting one of the Gonsalvus children, a family of the Canary Islands known in the 16th Century for its legendary hairiness.


The early 19th Century brings the emergence of a new genre: ethnic shows. They first develop in theater cafés before spreading to larger and larger venues and being included in exhibitions and circuses.

This process of staging the difference blurs the difference between the deformed and the foreign: physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities are first staged, and then become the focus of performances.

The first ethnic and freak shows add a new dimension to popular culture by more and more regularly bringing together exotic people alongside freaks. Case in point: Saartje Baartman, nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus”, exhibited in London and Paris in the early 19th Century. She represents a new phase of the exhibition process.

The first shows fashion and structure the Western view on otherness, specifically from regions such as the various regions Europe hopes to conquer or in the process of colonizing.

In the early stages of imperial colonization, theories arise on the classification and organization of humanity and on the concept of race: an academic way of thinking that marked humanities throughout the 19th century.


Between 1870 and WWII, many venues start specializing in ethnic performance as the Crystal Palace, Barnum and Bailey in Madison Square, the Paris Folies Bergères or the famous Panoptikum in Berlin. It is the time of the professionalization of the activity, and exotic performance morphs into mass entertainment.

Visitors are introduced to “actors of savageness” who become true genre professionals: Aboriginals, ‘lip-plate women’, Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers or oriental belly dancers, but also the first black clown in France called “Chocolat” and drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec and legendary Buffalo Bill, whose show revolves on the native American Indian archetype, which forever brands the Far West imagery.

Unbeknownst to them, audiences encounter made-up ‘savages’. Generally paid, the exhibited actively participate in building the imagery.


Reconstructed ethnic villages, zoos, colonial and international fairs, science and spectacle merge in multiple places. Exotic peoples and physical strangeness are brought together on stage as if they both equally represented the realm of abnormality.

Excess, grandeur and ephemeral reconstructions characterize this section of the exhibition with posters and painted dioramas, film ,screenings, photographs, automates and postcards.

The practice starts in public gardens, following the one in Paris which, in 1877, is the first in Europe to exhibit tribes and groups. Such exhibitions lead to the invention of travelling Villages, like Carl Hagenbeck’s. Major tours start in 1874, and in 1878 until the 30s, international and colonial fairs include an exotic dimension to their programs.

While this trend primarily hits Europe, it also reaches America, Japan and the colonies themselves (Australia, India and Indochina), and attracts hundreds of million visitors.
You can also read the entire article from which the introductory quote was drawn by clicking here. More can be found on the museum website by clicking here. For more on The Great Coney Island Spectacularium, click here.

Thanks so much to my buddy John Troyer for sending this along.

Bottom two images from Captions: Top: Nineteenth century models of heads of Botoduco men on display in Human Zoos: The invention of the savage. Picture: AFP; Bottom: Busts of an English man, a Chinese man, an Algerian man and a Brazilian man as part of Human zoos, The invention of the savage. Picture: AFP

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