‘Human zoos’ exhibited at Paris’ tribal museumPARIS - The story of men, women and children plucked from their homes in the West’s colonies and exhibited like zoo animals is the focus of a major show that opened on Monday at Paris’ tribal arts museum.
“Exhibitions: The invention of the savage,” at the Quai Branly Museum, shows how up until the mid-20th century, labeling indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, Oceania and America “savages” helped to justify the brutality of colonial rule.
Former football star Lilian Thuram, who was born on the French Caribbean island Guadeloupe, is chief curator of the show. He told AFP he was stunned by a visit to Hamburg Zoo in Germany. “At the entrance there are animal sculptures, but also ones of Indians and Africans - letting visitors know they are going to see not just animals but human beings as well,” he said. “They are still there today.”
In 1931, the grandparents of another French footballer, Christian Karembeu, were put on display at the Jardin d’Acclimation in Paris, then in Germany, along with around 100 other New Caledonian Kanaks, cast as “cannibals.”
From the Indians brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus after 1492, until the end of the 18th century, the first wave of shows involved indigenous people seen as exotic or monstrous, shown to a limited European elite.
But the phenomenon expanded massively from the early 19th century on, when South Africa’s Saartje Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus,” was exhibited in London and Paris.
“We reckon that 1.4 billion people were exposed to these exhibitions of so-called ‘savages,’ at universal exhibitions, fairs, circuses or theaters,” between 1810 and 1958, said one of the curators, historian Pascal Blanchard.
Such shows took place across Europe, but also in the United States, Japan and Australia.