Conference on the Human Zoo exhibit to students at the University of Los Angeles, Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Human Zoos Program Launched in the United States: From California to the Pacific Northwest

The display of racialized bodies in the very early years of the 19th century coincided with the rising popularity of ethnic spectacles and shows known as “Human Zoos.” This moment was to prove decisive since this was also a period of imperial expansion. New scientific representations of race triggered a radical transformation in the visual economy of race, and this proved crucial because ethnic spectacles served to disseminate these to the general public, while introducing in Europe and the United States a standardized figure of the exotic and the “savage.” Following a series of events in France on the subject, an ambitious international program on “human zoos” has just been launched in the United States and will continue throughout 2016 and 2017, approaching the theme from a historical perspective, while also augmenting discussions with local experiences and examples of the practice.

The research on “human zoos” that began in the 1990s will continue throughout 2016-2017 in an international framework, with conferences and exhibitions planned in Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom…), in Asia (Japan, South Korea…), Latin America (Argentina), in the Caribbean (Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe…) and the United States.

The program in the United States opened February 1-3 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with the exhibition Human Zoos (made up of 19 exhibition panels and over 250 documents) and a guided tour for faculty and students given by Pascal Blanchard. This was followed by a presentation and discussion in the novelist Alain Mabanckou’s graduate seminar, and accompanied by screening (in the presence of filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb) of two documentaries, Exhibitions (2009, by Rachid Bouchareb and Pascal Blanchard) and Zoos Humains (2002, by Pascal Blanchard and Éric Deroo). These films include a vast array of archival materials, including new sources from several collections (Pathé-Gaumont, Albert Kahn, Association des Frères Lumière…). Thanks to historical and scholarly research and contributions by several leadings specialists, these films provide historical contextualization on the phenomenon of “human zoos,” while also highlighting the tremendous impact these exhibitions had in the West, transforming the figure of the “savage” into a reality for millions of visitors.

The program continued on 5 February at Whitman College in Walla Walla County in Washington. This was the site of the “Whitman massacre” where, in 1847, Marcus Whitman (a missionary who had settled in the area in 1836 and after whom the college is named) was murdered by Cayuse Native Ameircans. This was therefore a highly-symbolic place in which to consider the complex question of “human zoos”.

An international symposium was held, Human Zoos: Photography, Race, and Empire, with the participation of Stephen Sheehi (Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at William & Mary College), Dominic Thomas (Professor of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA), and Pascal Blanchard (CNRS and the Achac Research Group). These keynote addresses were followed by presentations by Whitman College faculty Kisha Lewellyn Schelegel (English Department), Jonathan Walters (Religion Department) and Susanne Beechey (Political Science Department) and two students (Sarah Cornett and Yi “Suzy” Xu). The conference inaugurated an impressive three month series of seminars, films, lectures, organized by Professor Elyse Semerdjian around the exhibition Scenes & Types: Photography from the Collection of Adnan Charara. These questions have a particular resonance in this region of the country where the Confederate Tribes of Walla Walla (Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla), students and faculty at Whitman College continue to debate the legacy of Marcus Whitman, a pioneer for some and a symbol of the colonial settler for others. Not far from here is where the annual “Pendleton Round-Up” takes place, a rodeo that includes Indian relay races and an Indian pageant, events that remain, to this day, popular “attractions”.

An international research team (Producing the French Empire: The Achac Collection and the Politics of Representation) will meet at the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles in April. The program will then continue throughout 2016 and 2017 in various colleges and universities in collaboration with a number of institutional partners (notably the French Cultural Services), and consist of conferences, lectures, exhibitions, and round table discussions. The goal of the organizers is to improve awareness of “human zoos,” to stimulate interest from museums on the question, and to foster interdisciplinary projects with US-based scholars. Central to these investigations is the question of the influence of these “human zoos” on the emergence of colonial and popular racism. As Gilles Boëtsch and Pascal Blanchard have shown, the connection is clear: “Anthropozoological spectacles were the key vector in the acceleration of the move from scientific racism to popular racism. Seeing real or symbolic populations locked up in cages was all that was necessary for visitors to understand the hierarchies in place, leaving little doubt as to where knowledge and power were located.

Theories on race were relatively unknown at the time, but imperial expansion itself was well underway, notably in the Americas in the form of domination over Native American populations and slavery. The major tranformation thus took place with large-scale ethnic spectacles that served to disseminate a new visual culture on the “races” (thanks to postcards, posters, etc.) to the general public. This passion for the exoticized body can only be understood by analyzing the normative body processes that characterized Western societies in the 19th century. Without being able to describe them here in detail, it is nevertheless important to underscore the degree to which bourgeois bodily norms gradually extended to the entire society. The figure of the “savage” appeared freer, less constrained, and this liberty stirred the visitor’s desire. People were mesmerized. With the wave of colonial expositions, universal expositions (such as those held in Chicago or in St. Louis) and traveling ethnic villages, the “savage” would gradually transform into a “civilizable indigenous person” under the spectator’s gaze. In Europe, these expositions were designed to show the accomplishments and the projects of the imperial powers, and primarily those of France, Great Britain, and Belgium. If the way of life, the clothing, the dances, the artisanal techniques were there to underline the supposed cultural inferiority of colonized peoples, the color of their skin was always an emblematic marker of “difference.”

In the United States, exhibitions were used to legitimize the American nation, the model it embraced as well as the multiple forms of segregation that were in place. These are the kinds of questions that will be explored in the coming months, conversations and exchanges that will hopefully encourage new and innovative approaches and projects such as the initiatives in place at Whitman College.

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