The shocking story of human zoos

Published: Dec 09, 2011, 08:29 IST | Dhananjay Khadilkar |

Every year, countless people flock to Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower

Every year, countless people flock to Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. However, about 100 years ago, the same sprawling garden used to be visited by hundreds of thousands of people to not only marvel at the creation of Gustave Eiffel but also to get amused and entertained by the 'exotic' people from faraway lands like Asia, Africa and Oceania, who were exhibited primarily because of their different size, ethnicity, culture and colour.

Though perceived as a medium of entertainment, such exhibitions, called Human Zoos, often had discriminatory undertones. This is the theme of the latest exhibition titled 'Human Zoos: The invention of Savage' at the famous Quai Branly museum which is a stone's throw away from the Eiffel Tower.

The exhibition throws light on the shocking story of the three centuries long phenomenon in which 'savage' people were first discovered and then showcased to the Western world.

Brains behind the exhibit: Former French international football player
Lilian Thuram is the curator of the show

According to Lilian Thuram, the World Cup winning French footballer who is the chief curator of the exhibit, "this phenomenon, over the years, developed into a mass culture. The images of these men, women and children -- exposed and exhibited, shown and humiliated -- appeared on postcards, posters, paintings, crockery and souvenirs."

The exhibition has a range of photographs, posters, sculptures, paintings, banners, short films and postcards depicting this medium of entertainment that had become a part of popular culture in cities like Paris, London, Hamburg and New York.

Among many objects on display in the museum is a film of an Indian male dancer performing in his traditional attire to the beats of tabla and harmonium Paris in 1931. There is also a poster showing an African tribal chief his band in a zoological garden of acclimitasition in Paris in 1937. These two examples show the different ways through which the 'other' people were looked at.

Statistics show that more than 35,000 'other' people were exhibited all over the world between between 1800 and 1958.

The postcards of the 'savages' at the human zoos. pics/Mus �e du quai
Branly, ACHAC Research Group, Paris

Thuram remarked that humanity was denied to those people who were exhibited. "The public was at a show, denying the humanity of: Saartjie Baartman in the early nineteenth century, of Ota Benga in the early twentieth, and of the great-grandparents of my friend and fellow-footballer Christian Karembeu, exhibited in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris and in a German zoo, in 1931."

The exhibition traces the evolution of the Human Zoos from the 16th century till the 1950s, from mere discovery and presentation of few 'exotic' individuals meant for the elite class to the classification and categorisation based on ethnicity and the democratisation of these exhibits. It also shows how these exhibits often had colonial expansionism overtones and finally its growth into a source of mass entertainment bordering on an industry. One of the aspects about such colonial exhibitions was that sometimes they were shown in colonies themselves. India too had one such exhibition, which was held in 1883 in Calcutta.

According to Pascal Blachard, one of the two scientific curators of the museum, "To exhibit men and women, to place a distance between them and visitors, to present them as different and inferior, was to construct a kind of divide between the normal and the abnormal, to invent a break between two distinct forms of humanity."

Thuram feels the study of human zoos is extremely important to fight against racism. "This explains the racist prejudices, with their hierarchies and contempt, that live on in our society. These images that, yesterday, "invented the savage", must today be used to deconstruct those patterns of thought which propagate the belief in the existence of types of human being that are superior to others," he said.

Considering their popularity, these exhibits must have had a considerable impact on society.  As Blachard puts it, "We can now measure the extent to which racism, segregation and eugenist ideas were able to penetrate public opinion, with no apparent violence, and while entertaining visitors." The exhibition also lists the following reasons why human zoos ended by the middle of 20th century - to loss of public interest, change in the attitudes of colonial powers and the development of new media of entertainment like the cinema.

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