Human zoos : The Invention of the savage

“The concept of the ‘human zoo’, in the broadest sense of the term, serves to describe the transition from an exclusively scientific racism to its more widespread and popular form.”

Le Monde diplomatique (2000)

This exhibition tells the story of women, men and children from Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and in some cases from Europe who were displayed in the West and elsewhere at universal and colonial exhibitions and fairs, in circuses, cabarets, and zoos, as well as in traveling “exotic” villages. For almost five centuries (1490-1960) these people were exhibited as “savages” in Europe, the United States and Japan. The shows were impressive “spectacles”, theatricalizations, with performers, stage sets, impresarios and riveting storylines. However, colonial and scientific history, the history of race, the history of entertainment, of world fairs and universal exhibitions has been somewhat overlooked… Western promoters actively recruited troupes, families or performers from all over the world, at times coercively, but usually by offering contracts. These large-scale exhibitions of human beings were specific to the West and to colonial powers and served to reaffirm a hierarchy between people according to skin color, the legacy of which can still be felt today.

For more than a century (from the Hottentot Venus in 1810 up until the Second World War in 1940), the exhibition industry attracted over one billion four hundred million spectators and staged somewhere in the range of thirty and thirty-five thousand performers from the four corners of the world. “Human zoos” aimed to establish a boundary and hierarchy between the “civilized” and the “savage”, even if, on occasion, spectators experienced genuine admiration for certain “exhibits”. The “human zoo” itself, more often than not, stood as the first visual contact, the first encounter, between the people who were exhibited and those who went to look at them, between Them and Us. The Achac Research Group and the Lilian Thuram Foundation have conceived of this exhibition in such a way as to explain the origins of prejudice. The past must be deconstructed and understood so that a human being’s skin color and culture no longer serve as a pretext for rejection or discrimination.

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