Human zoos, also known as ethnological expositions, were public displays of people, usually in an erroneously labeled "natural" or "primitive" state. They were most prominent during the 19th and 20th century. These displays often emphasized the supposed inferiority of their culture, and superiority of 'Western society'. Throughout their existence they've garnered controversy over their demeaning, derogatory, and dehumanizing nature. They began as a part of circuses and 'freak shows' where they were displayed in a manner which exaggerated their differences akin to a caricature. They then developed into independent displays emphasizing their inferiority to western culture and further justification for their subjugation. These displays were part of multiple World's fairs and then transitioned into sections of animal zoos. From there, animal zoos would make up many of the controversies spanning to modern day, as human expositions were slowly diminishing in prominence after the Victorian era.
Circuses and freak shows
The notion of the human curiosity has a history at least as long as colonialism. In the Western Hemisphere, one of the earliest-known zoos, that of Moctezuma in Mexico, consisted not only of a vast collection of animals, but also exhibited humans, for example, dwarves, albinos and hunchbacks.
During the Renaissance, the Medici developed a large menagerie in the Vatican. In the 16th century, Cardinal Hippolytus Medici had a collection of people of different races as well as exotic animals. He is reported as having a troupe of so-called Savages, speaking over twenty languages; there were also Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans. In 1691, Englishman William Dampier exhibited a tattooed native of Miangas whom he bought when he was in Mindanao. He also intended to exhibit the man's mother to earn more profit, but the mother died at sea. The man was named Jeoly, falsely branded as "Prince Giolo" to attract more audience, and was exhibited for three months straight until he died of smallpox in London.
One of the first modern public human exhibitions was P.T. Barnum's exhibition of Joice Heth on February 25, 1835 and, subsequently, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. These exhibitions were common in freak shows. Another famous example was that of Saartjie Baartman of the Namaqua, often referred to as the Hottentot Venus, who was displayed in London and France until her death in 1815.
During the 1850s, Maximo and Bartola, two microcephalic children from El Salvador, were exhibited in the US and Europe under the names Aztec Children and Aztec Lilliputians. However, human zoos would become common only in the 1870s in the midst of the New Imperialism period.
The birth of human exhibits
In the 1870s, exhibitions of so-called "exotic populations" became popular throughout the western world. Human zoos could be in many of Europe's largest cites, such as Paris, Hamburg, London, Milan as well as American cities such as New York and Chicago. Carl Hagenbeck, an animal trader, was one of the early proponents of this trend, when in 1874, at the suggestion of Heinrich Leutemann, he decided to exhibit Sami people with the ‘Laplander Exhibition’. What differentiated Hagenbeck's exhibit from others, was the fact that he showed these people, with animals and plants, to “re-create”, their “natural environment.” He sold people the feeling of having travelled to these areas by witnessing his exhibits. These exhibits were a massive success, and only became larger and more elaborate. From this point forward human exhibitions would lean towards stereotyping, and projecting western superiority. Greater feeding into the Imperialist narrative, that these people's culture merited subjugation. It also promoted scientific racism, where they were classified as more or less 'civilized' on a scale, from great apes to western Europeans.
Hagenbeck would go on to launch a Nubian Exhibit in 1876, and an Inuit exhibit in 1880. These were also massively successful.
Aside from Hagenbeck, the Jardin d'Acclimatation was also a hotspot of ethnological exhibits. Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, director of the Jardin d'Acclimatation, decided in 1877 to organize two ethnological exhibits that also presented Nubians and Inuit people. That year, the audience of the Jardin d'acclimatation' doubled to one million. Between 1877 and 1912, approximately thirty ethnological exhibitions were presented at the Jardin zoologique d'acclimatation.
These displays were so successful they were incorporated into both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World's Fair, which presented a 'Negro Village'. Visited by 28 million people, the 1889 World's Fair displayed 400 indigenous people as the major attraction.
At both the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition Little Egypt a bellydancer, was photographed as a catalogued "type" by Charles Dudley Arnold and Harlow Higginbotha.
Ethnology studies in Germany took a new approach in the 1870s as human displays were incorporated into zoos. These exhibits were lauded as 'educational' to the general population by the scientific community. Very quickly, the exhibits were used as a way to show that Europeans had "evolved" into a 'superior', 'cosmopolitan' life.
In the late 19th century, German ethnographic museums were seen as an empirical study of human culture. They contained artifacts from cultures around the world organized by continent allowing visitors to see the similarities and differences between the groups and "form their own ideas".
Humans in zoos at the turn of the century
The 1900 World's Fair presented the famous diorama living in Madagascar, while the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) also displayed humans in cages, often nude or semi-nude. The 1931 exhibition in Paris was so successful that 34 million people attended it in six months, while a smaller counter-exhibition entitled The Truth on the Colonies, organized by the Communist Party, attracted very few visitors—in the first room, it recalled Albert Londres and André Gide's critiques of forced labour in the colonies. Nomadic Senegalese Villages were also presented.
First organized backlash
According to The New York Times, "few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions", controversy erupted as black clergymen in the city took great offense. "Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes", said the Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. "We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls."
New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. refused to meet with the clergymen, drawing the praise of Hornaday, who wrote to him: "When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage."
As the controversy continued, Hornaday remained unapologetic, insisting that his only intention was to put on an ethnological exhibition. In another letter, he said that he and Grant—who ten years later would publish the racist tract The Passing of the Great Race—considered it "imperative that the society should not even seem to be dictated to" by the black clergymen.
1903 saw one of the first widespread protests against human zoos, at the "Human Pavilion" of a 1903 exposition in Osaka, Japan. The exhibition of Koreans and Okinawans in "primitive" housing incurred protests from the governments of Korea and Okinawa, and a Taiwanese woman wearing Chinese dress angered a group of Chinese students studying abroad in Tokyo. An Ainu schoolteacher was made to exhibit himself in the zoo in order to raise money for his schoolhouse, as the Japanese government refused to pay. The fact that the schoolteacher made eloquent speeches and fundraised for his school while wearing traditional dress confused the spectators. An anonymous front-page column in a Japanese magazine condemned these examples and the "Human Pavilion" in total, calling it inhumane to exhibit people as spectacles.
In 1904, Apaches and Igorots (from the Philippines) were displayed at the Saint Louis World Fair in association with the 1904 Summer Olympics. Following the Spanish–American War, the United States had just acquired new territories such as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and allowed the fair to "display" some of the native inhabitants.
In 1906, Madison Grant—socialite, eugenicist, amateur anthropologist, and head of the New York Zoological Society—had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City alongside apes and other animals. At the behest of Grant, the zoo director William Hornaday placed Benga displayed in a cage with the chimpanzees, then with an orangutan named Dohong, and a parrot, and labeled him The Missing Link, suggesting that in evolutionary terms Africans like Benga were closer to apes than were Europeans. It triggered protests from the city's clergymen, but the public reportedly flocked to see it.
On Monday, September 8, 1906, after just two days, Hornaday decided to close the exhibition, and Benga could be found walking the zoo grounds, often followed by a crowd "howling, jeering and yelling."
Last legs of human zoos
Between 1 May and 31 October 1908 the Scottish National Exhibition, opened by one of Queen Victoria's grandsons, Prince Arthur of Connaught, was held in Saughton Park, Edinburgh. One of the attractions was the Senegal Village with its French-speaking Senegalese residents, on show demonstrating their way of life, art and craft while living in beehive huts.
In 1909, the infrastructure of the 1908 Scottish National Exhibition in Edinburgh was used to construct the new Marine Gardens to the coast near Edinburgh at Portobello. A group of Somalian men, women and children were shipped over to be part of the exhibition, living in thatched huts.
By the 1930s, a new kind of human zoo appeared in America, nude shows masquerading as education. These included the Zoro Garden Nudist Colony at the Pacific International Exposition in San Diego, California (1935-6) and the Sally Rand Nude Ranch at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco (1939). The former was supposedly a real nudist colony, which used hired performers instead of actual nudists. The latter featured nude women performing in western attire. The Golden Gate fair also featured a "Greenwich Village" show, described in the Official Guide Book as “Model artists’ colony and revue theatre.”
Ethnological expositions during Nazi Germany
As Ethnogenic expositions were discontinued in Germany around 1931, there were many repercussions for the performers. Many of the people brought from their homelands to work in the exhibits had created families in Germany, and there were many children that had been born in Germany. Once they no longer worked in the zoos or for performance acts, these people were stuck living in Germany where they had no rights and were harshly discriminated against. During the rise of the Nazi party, the foreign actors in these stage shows were typically able to stay out of concentration camps because there were so few of them that the Nazis did not see them as a real threat. Although they were able to avoid concentration camps, they were not able to participate in German life as citizens of ethnically German origin could. The Hitler Youth did not allow children of foreign parents to participate, and adults were rejected as German soldiers. Many ended up working in war industry factories or foreign laborer camps. After World War II ended, racism in Germany became more concealed or invisible, but it did not go away. Many people of foreign descent intended to leave after the war, but because of their German nationality, it was difficult for them to emigrate.
In July 2005, the Augsburg Zoo in Germany hosted an "African village" featuring African crafts and African cultural performances. The event was subject to widespread criticism. Defenders of the event argued that it was not racist since it did not involve exhibiting Africans in a debasing way, as had been done at zoos in the past. Critics argued that presenting African culture in the context of a zoo contributed to exoticizing and stereotyping Africans, thus laying the ground work for racial discrimination.
In 2007, Adelaide Zoo ran a Human Zoo exhibition which consisted of a group of people who, as part of a study exercise, had applied to be housed in the former ape enclosure by day, but then returned home by night. The inhabitants took part in several exercises, and spectators were asked for donations towards a new ape enclosure.
Also in 2007, pygmy performers at the Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) were housed at a zoo in Brazzaville, Congo. Although members of the group of 20 people—among them an infant, age three months—were not officially on display, it was necessary for them to "collect firewood in the zoo to cook their food, and [they] were being stared at and filmed by tourists and passers-by".
In 2012, a video surfaced showing a safari trip to the Bay of Bengal. The safari trip included showcasing the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands in their own home. This indigenous tribe had not had much contact with outsiders, and some were asked to perform dances for the tourists. At the beginning of the safari trip there were signs stating not to "feed" the tribespeople, but tourists still brought food to give to the tribespeople. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court banned these safari trips.
In August 2014, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey's show Exhibit B was performed in the Playfair Library Hall, University of Edinburgh; then in September at The Barbican in London. This explored the nature of Human Zoos and raised much controversy both amongst the performers and the audiences.
With a view to tackling the morality of Human Zoo exhibits, 2018 saw the poster exhibition, Putting People on Display, tour Glasgow School of Art, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Stirling, the University of St Andrews and the University of Aberdeen. Additional posters were added to a selection from the French ACHAC's exhibition, Human Zoos: the Invention of the Savage, in relation to the Scottish dimension in hosting such shows.
- Abraham Ulrikab
- Carl Hagenbeck
- Living history museum
- Scientific racism
- Romantic racism
- Scramble for Africa
- State of nature
- World's fair
- Natural state
- Noble savage
- Wild man
- Racial fetishism
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