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Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows? Essence and contingency in Living Ethnological Exhibitons

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The aim of this article is to study the living ethnological exhibitions. The main feature of these multiform varieties of public show, which became widespread in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe and the United States, was the live presence of individuals who were considered “primitive”. Whilst these native peoples sometimes gave demonstrations of their skills or produced manufactures for the audience, more often their role was simply as exhibits, to display their bodies and gestures, their different and singular condition. In this article, the three main forms of modern ethnic show (commercial, colonial and missionary) will be presented, together with a warning about the inadequacy of categorising all such spectacles under the label of “human zoos”, a term which has become common in both academic and media circles in recent years.El objetivo del artículo es estudiar las exhibiciones etnológicas vivas, una multiforme modalidad de espectáculo público que se extiende durante la segunda mitad del siglo XIX y la primera mitad del XX y que presenta como característica esencial la presentación “en vivo” de individuos considerados primitivos. Aunque tales personajes, los nativos, en ocasiones ejecutan ciertas destrezas o elaboran determinadas manufacturas de cara al público, lo más habitual es que su único cometido sea mostrarse a sí mismos, exhibir sus cuerpos y sus gestos, su condición diferente y singular. Revisamos las tres principales formas de show étnico moderno (comercial, colonial y misional) y advertimos sobre lo inadecuado de englobar todos estos espectáculos bajo el calificativo de “zoos humanos”, expresión que se ha extendido tanto en el ámbito académico como en el mediático durante los últimos años.
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Culture & History Digital Journal 2(2)
December 2013, e022
eISSN 2253-797X
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/chdj.2013.022
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows? Essence and contingency in
LivingEthnological Exhibitons
Luis A. Sánchez-Gómez
Facultad de Geografía e Historia, Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain.
e-mail: langel@ucm.es
Submitted: 15 July 2013; Accepted: 9 September 2013
ABSTRACT: The aim of this article is to study the living ethnological exhibitions. The main feature of these
multiform varieties of public show, which became widespread in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century
Europe and the United States, was the live presence of individuals who were considered “primitive”. Whilst
these native peoples sometimes gave demonstrations of their skills or produced manufactures for the audi-
ence, more often their role was simply as exhibits, to display their bodies and gestures, their different and
singular condition. In this article, the three main forms of modern ethnic show (commercial, colonial and
missionary) will be presented, together with a warning about the inadequacy of categorising all such spec-
tacles under the label of “human zoos”, a term which has become common in both academic and media
circles in recent years.
KEYWORDS: Anthropological Exhibitions; Colonial Exhibitions; Colonialism; Christian Missions; Racism;
Exoticism; Ethnography; Völkerschauen
Citation / Cómo citar este artículo: Sánchez-Gómez, L.A. (2013) “Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows? Essence and contin-
gency in Living Ethnological Exhibitons”. Culture & History Digital Journal 2(2): e022. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/
chdj.2013.022
Resumen: ¿Zoos humanos o espectáculos étnicos? Esencia y contingencia en las exposiciones etnológicas ‘vivas’.-
El objetivo del artículo es estudiar las exhibiciones etnológicas vivas, una multiforme modalidad de espectáculo
público que se extiende durante la segunda mitad del siglo XIX y la primera mitad del XX y que presenta
como característica esencial la presentación “en vivo” de individuos considerados primitivos. Aunque tales per-
sonajes, los nativos, en ocasiones ejecutan ciertas destrezas o elaboran determinadas manufacturas de cara al
público, lo más habitual es que su único cometido sea mostrarse a sí mismos, exhibir sus cuerpos y sus gestos,
su condición diferente y singular. Revisamos las tres principales formas de show étnico moderno (comercial,
colonial y misional) y advertimos sobre lo inadecuado de englobar todos estos espectáculos bajo el calificativo
de “zoos humanos”, expresión que se ha extendido tanto en el ámbito académico como en el mediático durante
los últimos años.
PALABRAS CLAVE: Exposiciones etnológicas; Exposiciones coloniales; Colonialismo; Misiones cristianas; Racismo;
Exotismo; Antropología; Völkerschauen
Copyright: © 2013 CSIC. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution-Non Commercial (by-nc) Spain 3.0 License.
2 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
Culture & History Digital Journal 2(2), December 2013, e022. eISSN 2253-797X doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/chdj.2013.022
INTRODUCTION
Between the 29th of November 2011 and the
3rd of June 2012, the Quai de Branly Museum in
Paris displayed an extraordinary exhibition, with
the eye-catching title Exhibitions. L’invention du
sauvage, which had a considerable social and media
impact (figure1). Its “scientific curators” were the
historian Pascal Blanchard and the museum’s cura-
tor Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, with Guadalupe-born
former footballer Lilian Thuram acting as “com-
missioner general”. A popular sportsman, Thuram
is also known in France for his staunch social and
political commitment. The exhibition was the cul-
mination (although probably not the end point) of
a successful project which had started in Marseille
in 2001 with the conference entitled Mémoire colo-
nial: zoos humains? Corps Exotiques, corps enfermés,
corps mesurés. Over time, successive publications of
the papers presented at that first meeting have given
rise to a genuine publishing saga, thus far includ-
ing three French editions (Bancel et al., 2002, 2004;
Blanchard et al., 2011), one in Italian (Lemaire
etal., 2003), one in English (Blanchard et al., 2008)
and another in German (Blanchard et al., 2012).
This remarkable repertoire is completed by the
impressive catalogue of the exhibition (Blanchard;
Boëtsch y Snoep, 2011). All of the book titles (with
the exception of the catalogue) make reference to
“human zoos” as their object of study, although
in none of them are the words followed by a ques-
tion mark, as was the case at the Marseille confer-
ence. This would seem to define “human zoos” as
a well-documented phenomenon, the essence of
which has been well-established. Most significantly,
despite reiterating the concept, neither the cata-
logue of the exhibition, nor the texts drawn up by
the exhibit’s editorial authorities, provide a precise
definition of what a human zoo is understood to be.
Nevertheless, the editors seem to accept the concept
as being applicable to all of the various forms of
public show featured in the exhibition, all of which
seem to have been designed with a shared contempt
for and exclusion of the “other”. Therefore, the
label “human zoo” implicitly applies to a variety of
shows whose common aim was the public display
of human beings, with the sole purpose of showing
their peculiar morphological or ethnic condition.
Both the typology of the events and the condition of
the individuals shown vary widely: ranging from the
(generally individual) presentation of persons with
crippling pathologies (exotic or more often domes-
tic freaks or “human monsters”) to singular physi-
cal conditions (giants, dwarves or extremely obese
individuals) or the display of individuals, families or
groups of exotic peoples or savages, arrived or more
usually brought, from distant colonies.1
The purpose of the 2001 conference had been to
present the available information about such shows,
to encourage their study from an academic perspec-
tive and, most importantly, to publicly denounce
these material and symbolic contexts of domina-
tion and stigmatisation, which would have had a
prominent role in the complex and dense animali-
sation mechanisms of the colonised peoples by the
“civilized West”. A scientific and editorial project
guided by such intentions could not fail to draw
widespread support from academic, social and
journalistic quarters. Reviews of the original 2002
text and successive editions have, for the most part,
been very positive, and praise for what was certainly
an extraordinary exhibition (the one of 2012) has
been even more unanimous.2 However, most com-
mentators have limited their remarks to praising the
important anti-racist content and criticisms of the
colonial legacy, which are common to both under-
takings. Only a few authors have drawn attention to
certain conceptual and interpretative problems with
the presumed object of study, the “human zoos”,
problems which would undermine the project’s solid-
ity (Blanckaert, 2002; Jennings, 2005; Liauzu, 2005:
10; Parsons, 2010; McLean, 2012). Problemswhich
Figure 1. Poster for Exhibitions. L’invention du sauvage, at the
Quai Branly Museum, Paris (http://www.quaibranly.fr).
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 3
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may arise from the indiscriminate use of the concept
of the “human zoo” will be discussed in detail at the
end of this article.
Firstly, however, a revision of the complex histor-
ical process underlying the polymorphic phenome-
non of the living exhibition and its configurations
will provide the background for more detailed study.
This will consist of an outline of three groups which,
in my view, are the most relevant exhibition catego-
ries. Although the public display of human beings
can be traced far back in history in many different
contexts (war, funerals and sacred contexts, pris-
ons, fairs, etc...) the configuration and expansion
of different varieties of ethnic shows are closely and
directly linked to two historical phenomena which
lie at the very basis of modernity: exhibitions and
colonialism. The former began to appear at national
contests and competitions (both industrial and agri-
cultural). These were organised in some European
countries in the second half of the eighteenth cen-
tury, but it was only in the century that followed that
they acquired new and shocking material and sym-
bolic dimensions, in the shape of the international
or universal exhibition.
The key date was 1851, when the Great Exhibition
of the Works of Industry of All Nations was held
in London. The triumph of the London event, its
rapid and continuing success in France and the
increasing participation (which will be outlined) of
indigenous peoples from the colonies, paved the way
from the 1880s for a new exhibition model: the colo-
nial exhibition (whether official or private, national
or international) which almost always featured the
presence of indigenous human beings. However, less
spectacular exhibitions had already been organised
on a smaller scale for many years, since about the
mid-nineteenth century. Some of these were truly
impressive events, which in some cases also featured
native peoples. These were the early missionary (or
ethnological-missionary) exhibitions, which initially
were mainly British and Protestant, but later also
Catholic.3 Finally, the unsophisticated ethnologi-
cal exhibitions which had been typical in England
(particularly in London) in the early-nineteenth cen-
tury, underwent a gradual transformation from the
middle of the century, which saw them develop into
the most popular form of commercial ethnological
exhibition. These changes were initially influenced
by the famous US circus impresario P.T. Barnum’s
human exhibitions. Later on, from 1874, Barnum’s
displays were successfully reinterpreted (through the
incorporation of wild animals and groups of exotic
individuals) by Carl Hagenbeck.
The second factor which was decisive in shaping
the modern ethnic show was imperial colonialism,
which gathered in momentum from the 1870s. The
propagandising effect of imperialism was facili-
tated by two emerging scientific disciplines, physi-
cal anthropology and ethnology, which propagated
colonial images and mystifications amid the metro-
politan population. This, coupled with robust new
levels of consumerism amongst the bourgeoisie
and the upper strata of the working classes, had a
greater impact upon our subject than the economic
and geostrategic consequences of imperialism
overseas. In fact, the new context of geopolitical,
scientific and economic expansion turned the for-
merly “mysterious savages” into a relatively acces-
sible object of study for certain sections of society.
Regardless of how much was written about their
exotic ways of life, or strange religious beliefs, the
public always wanted more: seeking participation
in more “intense” and “true” encounters and to feel
part of that network of forces (political, economic,
military, academic and religious) that ruled even the
farthest corners of the world and its most primitive
inhabitants.
It was precisely the convergence of this web of
interests and opportunities within the new exhibi-
tion universe that had already consolidated by the
end of the 1870s, and which was to become the
defining factor in the transition. From the older,
popular model of human exhibitions which had
dominated so far, we see a reduction in the numbers
of exhibitions of isolated individuals classified as
strange, monstrous or simply exotic, in favour of
adequately-staged displays of families and groups
of peoples considered savage or primitive, authentic
living examples of humanity from a bygone age. Of
course, this new interest, this new desire to see and
feel the “other” was fostered not only by exhibition
impresarios, but by industrialists and merchants
who traded in the colonies, by colonial administra-
tors and missionary societies. In turn, the process
was driven forward by the strongly positive reaction
of the public, who asked for more: more exoticism,
more colonial products, more civilising missions,
more conversions, more native populations sub-
mitted to the white man’s power; ultimately, more
spectacle.
Despite the differences that can be observed
within the catalogue of exhibitions, their success
hinged to a great extent upon a single factor: the
representation or display of human beings labelled
as exotic or savage, which today strikes us as unset-
tling and distasteful. It can therefore be of little
surprise that most, if not all, of the visitors to the
Quai de Branly Museum exhibiton of 2012 reacted
to the ethnic shows with a fundamental question:
how was it possible that such repulsive shows had
been organised? Although many would simply
respond with two words, domination and racism,
the question is certainly more complex. In order
to provide an answer, the content and meanings of
the three main models or varieties of the modern
ethnic show –commercial ethnological exhibitions,
colonial exhibitions and missionary exhibitions–
will be studied.
4 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
Culture & History Digital Journal 2(2), December 2013, e022. eISSN 2253-797X doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/chdj.2013.022
ETHNOLOGICAL COMMERCIAL
EXHIBITIONS: LEISURE, BUSINESS AND
ANTHROPOLOGICAL SCIENCE
Commercial ethnological exhibitions were man-
aged by private entrepreneurs, who very often acted
as de facto owners of the individuals they exhibited.
With the seemingly-noble purpose of bringing the
inhabitants of exotic and faraway lands closer to
the public and placing them under the scrutiny of
anthropologists and scholarly minds, these indi-
viduals organised events with a rather carnival-
like air, whose sole purpose was very simple: to
make money. Such exhibitions were held more fre-
quently than their colonial equivalents, which they
predated and for which they served as an inspira-
tion. In fact, in some countries where (overseas)
colonial expansion was delayed or minimal –such
as Germany (Thode-Arora, 1989; Kosok y Jamin,
1992; Klös, 2000; Dreesbach, 2005; Nagel, 2010),
Austria (Schwarz, 2001) or Switzerland (Staehelin,
1993; Minder, 2008)– and even in some former colo-
nies –such as Brazil (Sánchez-Arteaga and El-Hani,
2010)– they were regular and popular events and
could still be seen in some places as late as the
1950s. Even in the case of overseas superpowers,
commercial exhibitions were held more regularly
than the strictly-colonial variety, although it is true
that they sometimes overlapped and can be difficult
to distinguish from one another. This was the case
in France (Bergougniou, Clignet and David, 2001;
David, s.d.) and to an even greater extent in Great
Britain, with London becoming a privileged place to
experience them throughout the nineteenth century
(Qureshi,2011).
Almost all of these exhibitions attracted their
audiences with a clever combination of racial spec-
tacle, erotism and a few drops of anthropological
science, although there was no single recipe for a
successful show. Dances, leaps, chants, shouts, and
the blood of sacrificed animals were the fundamen-
tal components of these events, although they were
also part of colonial exhibitions. All of these acts,
these strange and unusual rituals, were as incompre-
hensible as they were exciting; as shocking as they
were repulsive to the civilised citizens of “advanced”
Europe. It is unsurprising that spectators were pre-
pared to pay the price of admission, which was not
cheap, in order to gain access to such extraordinary
sights as these “authentic savages”. Over time, the
need to attract increasingly demanding audiences,
who quickly became used to seeing “blacks and sav-
ages” of all kinds in a variety of settings, challenged
the entrepreneurs to provide ever more compelling
spectacles.
For decades the most admired shows on
European soil were organised by Carl Hagenbeck
(1844–1913), a businessman from Hamburg who
was a seasoned wild animal showman (Ames, 2008).
His greatest success was founded on a truly spec-
tacular innovation: the simultaneous exhibition in
one space (a zoo or other outdoor enclosure) of
wild animals and a group of natives, both suppos-
edly from the same territory, in a setting that recre-
ated the environment of their place of origin. The
first exhibition of this type, organised in 1874, was a
great success, despite the relatively low level of exot-
icism of the individuals displayed: a group of Sami
(Lap) men and women accompanied by some rein-
deer. Whilst not all of Hagenbeck’s highly successful
shows (of which there were over 50 in total) relied
upon the juxtaposition of humans and animals, all
presented a racial spectacle of exotic peoples typi-
cally displayed against a backdrop of huts, plants
and domestic ware, and included indigenous groups
from the distant territories of Africa, the Arctic,
India, Ceylon, and Southeast Asia (figure2).
For many scholars Hagenbeck’s Völkerschauen
or Völkerausstellungen constituted the paradigmatic
example of a human zoo, which is also accepted
by the French historians who organised the project
under the same name. They tended to combine dis-
plays of people and animals and took place in zoos,
so the analogy could not be clearer. Furthermore,
the performances of the exhibited peoples were lim-
ited to songs, dances and rituals, and for the most
parttheir activities consisted of little more than day-
to-day tasks and activities. Therefore, little impor-
tance was attached to their knowledge or skills, but
rather to the scrutiny of their gestures, their distinc-
tive bodies and behaviours, which were invariably
exotic but not always wild.
However, despite their obvious racial and largely-
racist components, Hagenbeck’s shows cannot
be simply dismissed as human zoos. As an entre-
preneur, the German’s objective was obviously to
profit from the display of animals and people alike,
and yet we cannot conclude that the humans were
reduced to the status of animals. In fact, the natives
were always employed and seem to have received fair
treatment. Likewise, their display was based upon a
premise of exoticism rather than savagery, in which
key ideas of difference, faraway lands and adventure
were ultimately exalted. Hagenbeck’s employees
were apparently healthy; sometimes slender, as were
the Ethiopians, or even athletic, like the Sudanese.
In some instances (for example, with people from
India and Ceylon) their greatest appeal was their
almost-fantastic exoticism, with their rich costumes
and ritual gestures being regarded as remarkable
and sophisticated.
Nevertheless, on many other occasions, people
were displayed for their distinctiveness and sup-
posed primitivism, as was the case on the dramatic
tour of the Inuit Abraham Ulrikab and his family,
from the Labrador Peninsula, all of whom fell ill
and died on their journey due to a lack of appro-
priate vaccination. This is undoubtedly one of
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 5
Culture & History Digital Journal 2(2), December 2013, e022. eISSN 2253-797X doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/chdj.2013.022
the best-documented commercial exhibitions, not
because of an abundance of details concerning its
organisation, but owing to the existence of several
letters and a brief diary written by Ulrikab himself
(Lutz, 2005). As can easily be imagined, it is abso-
lutely exceptional to find information originating
from one of the very individuals who featured in an
ethnic show; not an alleged oral testimony collected
by a third party, but their own actual voice. The vast
majority of such people did not know the language
of their exhibitors and, even if they knew enough to
communicate, it is highly unlikely that they would
have been able to write in it. All of this, coupled with
the fact that the documents have been preserved and
remain accessible, is almost a miracle.
However, in spite the tragic fate of Ulrikab and
his family, other contemporary ethnic shows were far
more exploitative and brutal. This was the case with
several exhibitions that toured Europe towardsthe
end of the 1870s, whose victims included Fuegians,
Inuits, primitive Africans (especially Bushmen and
Pygmies) or Australian aboriginal peoples. Some
were complex and relatively sophisticated and
included the recreation of native villages; in others,
the entrepreneur simply portrayed his workers with
their traditional clothes and weapons, emphasising
their supposedly primitive condition. Slightly less
dramatic than these, but more racially stigmatis-
ing than Hagenbeck’s shows, were the exhibitions
held at the Jardin d’Aclimatation in Paris, between
1877 and the First World War (figure3). A highly-
lucrative business camouflaged beneath a halo of
anthropological scientifism, the exhibitions were
organised by the director of the Jardin himself, the
naturalist Albert Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Coutancier
and Barthe, 1995; Mason, 2001: 19–54; David, n.d.;
Schneider, 2002; Báez y Mason, 2006). This pur-
ported scientific and educational institution enjoyed
the attention of French anthropologists for a time;
however, after 1886, the Anthropological Society in
Paris distanced itself from something that was little
more than it appeared to be: a spectacle for popular
recreation which was hard to justify from an ethi-
cal point of view. In the case of many private enter-
prises from the 1870s and 1880s, in particular, shows
can be described as moving away from notions of
fantasy, adventure and exotism and towards the
most brutal forms of exploitation. However, despite
what has been said about France, Qureshi (2011:
278–279) highlights the role that ethnologists and
anthropologists (and their study societies) played
in Great Britain in approving commercial exhibi-
tions of this sort. This enabled exhibitions to claim
legitimacy as spaces for scientific research, visitor
Figure 2. Postcard of Carl Hagenbeck’s “Galla Truppe”. Exhibition at the Zoo of Hamburg (Peter Weiss Collection). Spiegel
Online (http://einestages.spiegel.de).
6 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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education and, of course, the advancement of the
colonial enterprise.
Leaving aside the displays of isolated individuals
in theatres, exhibition halls, or fairgrounds (where
the alleged “savage” sometimes proved to be a fraud),
photographs and surviving information about the
aforementioned commercial ethnological shows
speak volumes about the relations which existed
between the exhibitors and the exhibited. In nearly
all cases the impresario was a European or North
American, who wielded almost absolute control
over the lives of their “workers”. Formal contracts
did exist and legal control became increasingly wide-
spread, especially in Great Britain, (Qureshi, 2011:
273) as the nineteenth century progressed. It is also
evident, nevertheless, that this contractual relation-
ship could not mask the dominating, exploitative and
almost penitentiary conditions of the bonds created.
Whether Inuit, Bushmen, Australians, Pygmies,
Samoans or Fuegians, it is hard to accept that all
contracted peoples were aware of the implications
of this legal binding with their employer. Whilst
most were not captured or kidnapped (although
this was documented on more than one occasion)
it is reasonable to be skeptical about the voluntary
nature of the commercial relationship. Moreover,
those very same contracts (which they were prob-
ably unable to understand in the first place) com-
mitted the natives to conditions of travel, work and
accommodation which were not always satisfactory.
Very often their lives could be described as confined,
not only when performances were taking place, but
also when they were over. Exhibited individuals
were very rarely given leave to move freely around
the towns that the exhibitions visited.
The exploitative and inhuman aspects of some
of these spectacles were particularly flagrant when
they included children, who either formed part of
the initial contingent of people, or swelled the ranks
of the group when they were born on tour. On the
one hand, the more primitive the peoples exhib-
ited were, the more brutal their exhibition became
and the circumstances in which it took place grew
more painful. Conversely, conditions seemed to
improve, albeit only to a limited extent, when indi-
viduals belonged to an ethnic group which was
more “evolved”, “prouder”, held warrior status, or
belonged to a local elite. This was true of certain
Figure 3. Poster from a Galibi Exhibition at the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation, Paris. Gallica – Bibliothèque national de
France (http://gallica.bnf.fr).
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 7
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African groups who were particularly resistant to
colonial domination, with the Ashanti being a case
in point (figure4). In spite of this, their subordinate
position did not change.
There was, however, a certain type of commercial
show in which the relations between the employer
and the employees went beyond the merely commer-
cial. More professionalised shows often required
natives to demonstrate skills and give performances
that would appeal to the audience. This was the case
in some (of the more serious and elaborate) circus
contexts and dramatised spectacles, the most nota-
ble of which was the acclaimed Wild West show.
Directed by William Frederick Cody (1846–1917),
the famous Buffalo Bill, the show featured cowboys,
Mexicans, and members of various Native American
ethnic groups (Kasson, 2000). This attraction, and
many others that followed in the wake of its success,
could be considered the predecessors of present-day
theme park shows (figure5).
Many of the shows which continued to endure
during the interwar period were in some mea-
sure similar to those of the nineteenth century,
although they were unable to match the popularity
of yesteryear. Whilst the stages were still set with
reproduction native villages, as had been the case
in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century,
the exhibition and presentation of natives acquired
a more fair-like and circus-like character, which
harked back to the spectacles of the early-nineteenth
century. Although it seems contradictory, colonial
exhibitions at this time were in fact much larger
and more numerous, as we shall see in the follow-
ing section. It was precisely then, in the mid-1930s,
that Nazi Germany, a very modern country with
the most intensely-racist government, produced an
ethnic show which illustrates the complexity of the
human zoo phenomenon. The Deutsche Afrika-
Schau (German African Show) provides an excel-
lent example of the peculiar game which was played
between owners, employees and public administra-
tors, concerning the display of exotic human beings.
The show, a striking and an incongruous fusion of
variety spectacle and Völkerschau, toured several
German towns between 1935 and 1940 (Lewerenz,
2006). Originally a private and strictly commercial
business, it soon became a peculiar semi-official
event in which African and Samoan men and women,
resident in Germany, were legally employed to take
part (figure6). Complicated and unstable after its
Nazification, the show aimed to facilitate the racial
control of its participants while serving as a mecha-
nism of ideological indoctrination and colonial pro-
paganda. Incapable of profiting from the show, the
Nazi regime would eventually abolish it.
After the Second World War, ethnic shows entered
a phase of obvious decline. They were no longer of
interest as a platform for the wild and exotic, mainly
due to increasing competition from new and more
accessible channels of entertainment, ranging from
cinema to the beginnings of overseas tourism within
Europe and beyond. While the occasional spectacle
tried to profit from the ancient curiosity about the
morbid and the unusual as late as the 1950s and
even the 1960s, they were little more than crude and
clumsy representations, which generated little inter-
est among the public. Nowadays, as before, there are
still contexts and spaces in which unique persons
are portrayed, whether this is related to ethnicity or
any other factor. These spectacles often fall into the
category of artistic performances or take the banal
form of reality TV.
COLONIAL EXHIBITIONS: LEISURE,
BUSINESS AND INDOCTRINATION
This category of exhibition was organised by either
public administrations or private institutions linked
to colonial enterprise, and very often featured some
degree of collaboration between the two. The main
aim of these events was to exhibit official colonial
projects and private initiatives managed by entrepre-
neurs and colonial settlers, which were supposedly
Figure 4. Ashanti Exhibition at the Retiro Parc, Madrid,
1897 (Photografh: A. S. Xatart). Museo Nacional de
Antropología, Madrid. Reproduced with permission.
8 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
Culture & History Digital Journal 2(2), December 2013, e022. eISSN 2253-797X doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3989/chdj.2013.022
Figure 5. Poster from the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, 1896. Net Mole: The History Science and Culture blog
(http://netmole.blogspot.com.es ).
Figure 6. Members of the Deutsche Afrika-Schau, 1938. Photo by P. Reed-Anderson (Möhle, n.d.).
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 9
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intended to bring the wealth and well-being of the
metropolis to the colonies. The presentation also
carried an educational message, intended not only to
reinforce the “national-colonial conscience” among
its citizens, but also to project a powerful image of
the metropolis to competing powers abroad. Faced
with the likelihood that such content would prove
rather unexciting and potentially boring for visi-
tors, the organisers resorted to various additions
which were considered more attractive and engag-
ing. Firstly they devised a museum of sorts, in which
ethnographic materials of the colonised peoples:
their traditional dress, day-to-day objects, idols and
weapons, were exhibited. These exotic and unusual
pieces did draw the interest of the public, but, fear-
ing that this would not be sufficient, the organisers
knew that they could potentially sell thousands of
tickets by offering the live display of indigenous
peoples. If the exhibition was official, the natives
constituted the ideal means by which to deliver the
colonial message to the masses. In the case of private
exhibitions, they were seen as the fastest and safest
way to guarantee a show’s financial success.
Raw materials and a variety of other objects
(including ethnographic exhibitions) from the col-
onies were already placed on show at the Great
Exhibition of 1851 in London. These items were
accompanied by a number of individuals originat-
ing from the same territories, either as visitors or
as participants in the relevant section of the exhi-
bition. However, such people cannot be considered
as exhibits themselves; neither can similar colonial
visitors at the Paris (1855) or London (1862) exhibi-
tions; nor the Paris (1867) and (1878) exhibitions,
which featured important colonial sections. It was
only at the start of the 1880s that Europeans were
able to enjoy the first colonial exhibitions proper,
whether autonomous or connected (albeit with an
identity and an entity of their own) to a univer-
sal or international exhibition. It could be argued
that the Amsterdam International Colonial and
Export Exhibition of 1883 acted as a letter of
introduction for this model of event (Bloembergen,
2006) (figure7), and it was quickly followed by the
London Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886
(Mathur, 2000) and, to a lesser though important
extent, by the Madrid Philippines Exhibition of
1887 (Sánchez-Gómez, 2003). All three housed
reproductions of native villages and exhibited doz-
ens of individuals brought from the colonies. This
was precisely what attracted the thousands of peo-
ple who packed the venues. Such success would not
have been possible by simply assembling a display of
historical documents, photographs or ethnographic
materials, no matter how exotic.
Thereafter, colonial exhibitions (almost all of
which featured the live presence of native peoples)
multiplied, whether they were autonomous or con-
nected with national or international exhibitions.
In France many municipalities and chambers of
commerce began to organise their own exhibits,
some of which (such as the Lyon Exhibition of
1894) were theoretically international in scope,
although some of the most impressive exhibits held
in the country were the colonial sections of the Paris
Universal Exhibition of 1889 (Palermo, 2003; Tran,
2007; Wyss, 2010) and 1900 (Wilson, 1991; Mabire,
2000; Geppert, 2010: 62–100). Equally successful
were the colonial sections of the Belgian exhibi-
tions of the last quarter of the nineteenth century,
which displayed the products and peoples of what
was called the Congo Independent State (later the
Belgian Congo), which until 1908 was a personal
possession of King Leopold II. The most remark-
able was probably the 1897 Tervuren Exhibition,
an annex of the Brussels International Exposition
of the same year (Wynants, 1997; Küster, 2006). In
Germany, one of the European capitals of commer-
cial ethnological shows, several colonial exhibitions
were orchestrated as the overseas empire was being
built between 1884 and 1918. Among them, the
Erste Deutsche Kolonialausstellung or First German
Figure 7. Ethnic shows at the Amsterdam Colonial
Exhibition, 1883 (Prince Roland Bonaparte, Les habitants
deSuriname, París, 1884).
10 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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Colonial Exhibition, which was organised as a
complement to the great Berlin Gewerbeausstellung
(Industrial Exhibition) of 1896 (figure8), was par-
ticularly successful (Arnold, 1995; Richter, 1995;
Heyden, 2002).
As far as the United States was concerned, the
country’s late but impetuous arrival as a world
power was almost immediately heralded by the
phenomenon of the World’s Fair, and the respec-
tive colonial sections (Rydell, 1984 y 1993; Rydell,
Findling y Pelle, 2000). Whilst a stunning variety
of ethnic performances were already on show at the
1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it was at Omaha, (1898)
Buffalo, (1901) and above all at the 1904 Saint Louis
Exhibition, that hundreds of natives were enthusi-
astically displayed with the purpose of publicising
and gathering support for the complex and “heavy”
civilising task (“The White Mans Burden”) that
the North American nation had to undertake in its
new overseas possessions (Kramer, 1999; Parezo y
Fowler, 2007).
In principle, those natives who took part in the
live section of a colonial exhibition did so of their
own accord, whether they were allegedly savage or
civilised individuals, and regardless of whether the
show had been organised through concessions to
private company owners or those who indirectly
depended on public agencies. Although neither vio-
lence nor kidnapping has been recorded, it is highly
unlikely that most of the natives who took up the
invitation were fully aware of its implications: again,
the great distances they had to travel, the discomforts
they would endure and the situations in which they
would be involved upon arrival in the metropolis.
Until the early-twentieth century, the sole pur-
pose of native exhibitions was to attract an audience
and to show, with the exemplar of a “real” image,
the inferior condition of the colonised peoples and
the need to continue the civilising mission in the far-
away lands from which they came. In all cases their
living conditions in the metropolis were unlikely
to differ greatly from those of the participants in
purely commercial shows: usually residing inside
the exhibition venue, they were rarely free to leave
without the express permission of their supervisors.
However, it must be said that conditions were con-
siderably better for the individuals exhibited when
the shows were organised by government agencies,
who always ensured that formal contracts were
signed, and were probably unlikely to house people
in the truly gruesome conditions present in some
domains of the private sector. In some cases, added
Figure 8. Postcard from the Deutsche Colonial-Ausstellung, Gewerbe Ausstellung (German Colonial Exhibition, Industrial
Exhibition, Berlin 1896). Historische Bildpostkarten, Universität Osnabrück, Sammlung Prof. Dr. S. Giesbrecht (http://www.
bildpostkarten.uni-osnabrueck.de).
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circumstances can be inferred which reveal a clear
interest in “doing things properly”, by developing
an ethical and responsible show, no matter how
impossible this was in practice. Perhaps the clear-
est example of this kind of event is the Philippines
Exhibition which was organized in Madrid in 1887.
The most striking feature of this exhibition was
its stated educational purpose, to present a sample
of the ethnic and social diversity of the archipel-
ago. Other colonial exhibitions attempted to do the
same, but in this case the intentions of the Spanish
appeared to be more authentic and credible. Of
course the aim was not to provide a lesson in island
ethnography, but to prove the extent to which the
Catholic Church had managed to convert the native
population, and to show where savage tribes still
existed. Representing the latter were, among oth-
ers, several Tinguian and Bontoc persons (generi-
cally known as Igorots by the Spanish) and an Aeta
person, referred to as a Negrito (figures9 and 10).
Several Muslim men and women from Mindanao
and the Joló (Sulu) archipelago (known to the
Spanish as Moros or “Moors”) also took part in the
exhibition, not because they were considered savages
but on account of their pagan and unredeemed con-
dition. Finally, as an example of the benefits of the
colonial enterprise, Christian Filipinos (both men
and women) were invited to demonstrate their artis-
tic skill and craftsmanship and to sell their artisan
products from various structures within the venue.
All were legally employed and received regular pay-
ment until their return to the Philippines, which was
very unusual for an exhibition at that time.
However, despite the “good intentions” of the
administration, an obvious hierarchy can be inferred
from the spatial pattern through which the Filipino
presence in Madrid was organised. Individuals con-
sidered savage lived inside the exhibit enclosure and
were under permanent control; they could visit the
city but always in a scheduled and closely-directed
way. Muslims, however, did not live inside the park,
but in boarding houses and inns. Their movements
were also restricted, but this was justified on the
basis of their limited knowledge of their surround-
ings. Christians also lodged at inns, and although
they did enjoy a certain autonomy, their status as
“special guests” imposed a number of official com-
mitments and the compulsory attendance of events.
Figure 9. Opening of the Philippine Exhibition, Madrid, 1887 (detail). La Ilustración Española y Americana, July 8, 1887.
12 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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Such differences became even more obvious, espe-
cially for the audience, not just because the savages
lived inside the ranchería or native village, where
they were exhibited, but also because their only pur-
pose was to dance, gesture, eat and display their half-
naked bodies. Muslims were not exhibited, nor did
they have a clear or specific task to perform beyond
merely “representing”. Christian men and women
(cigar makers and artisans) simply performed their
professional tasks in front of the audience, and were
expected to complete a given timetable and work-
load as would any other worker.
In the light of the above, it may be concluded that
the Philippines Exhibition of 1887 (specifically the
live exhibition section) was conducted in a manner
which questions the simplistic concept of a human
zoo that many historians apply to these spectacles.
Although there were certain similarities with com-
mercial shows, we must admit that the Spanish gov-
ernment made considerable efforts to ensure that
the exhibition, and above all the participation of
the Filipinos, was carried out in a relatively digni-
fied fashion. It must be reiterated that this is not
intended to project a benevolent image of nine-
teenth-century Spanish colonialism. The position of
some of the exhibited, especially those considered
savages, was not only subordinate but almost subhu-
man (almost being the key word), in spite of the fact
that they received due payment and were relatively
well fed. Moreover, we cannot forget that three of
the participants (a Carolino man and woman, and
a Muslim woman) died from diseases which were
directly related to the conditions of their stay on the
exhibition premises.
As the twentieth century advanced, colonial
shows changed their direction and content, although
it was some time before these changes took effect.
The years prior to the First World War saw several
national colonial exhibitions (Marseille and Paris
in 1906; London in 1911),4 (figure 11) two bina-
tional exhibitions (London, 1908 and 1910)5 and a
trinational (London, 1909),6 which became bench-
marks for exhibition organisers during the interwar
years. The early twentieth century also saw several
national colonial sections, wich had varying degrees
of impact, in three universal exhibitions organised
Figure 10. Philippine Exhibition, Madrid, 1887. Jean Laurent & Co., Album Exposición General de las Islas Filipinas en Madrid,
1887. Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid (Guardiola, 2006).
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in Belgium: Liège (1905), Brussels (1910) (figure12)
and Ghent (1913) and in several exhibitions organ-
ised in three different Italian cities, although none
of these included a native section.7 However, it was
during the 1920s and 1930s that a true eclosion
of national and international exhibitions, whose
main focus was colonial or which included impor-
tant colonial elements, occurred.8 The time was not
only ripe for ostentatious reasons, but also because
the tension originated by certain European pow-
ers, especially Italy, encouraged a vindication of
overseas colonies through the propaganda that was
deployed at these events.
For all these reasons, and in addition to many
other minor events, national colonial exhibitions
were staged in Marseille (1922), Wembley (1924–
25),9 Stuttgart (1928),10 Koln (1934), Oporto (1934),
Freiburg im Breisgau (1935), Como (1937),11 Glasgow
(1938),12 Dresden (1939), Vienna (1940) and Naples
(1940).13 At an international colonial level, the most
important was the 1931 Parisian Exposition Coloniale
Internationale et des Pays d’Outre Mer. In addition,
although they were not specialised international
colonial exhibitions, outstanding and relevant colo-
nial sections could be found at the Turin National
Exhibition of 1928, the Iberian-American Exhibition
of 1929, the Brussels Universal Exhibition of 1935,
the Paris International Exhibition of 1937 and the
Lisbon National Exhibition of 1940.
At most of these events, a revised perspective of
overseas territories was projected. Although, with
some exceptions, metropolises continued to import
indigenous peoples and persisted in presenting them
as exotic, the focus was now shifted on to the results
of the civilising process, as opposed to strident rep-
resentations of savagery. This meant that it was no
longer necessary for exhibited peoples to live at the
exhibition venue. The aim was now to show the most
attractive side of empire, and displays of the skills
of its inhabitants, such as singing or dancing contin-
ued, albeit in a more serious, professional fashion.
In principle, natives taking part in these exhibi-
tions could move around more freely; in addition,
they were all employed as any other professional or
worker would be. However, once again the ethnic fac-
tor came into play, materialising under many differ-
ent guises. For example, at the at the Paris Exhibition
of 1931, people who belonged to “oriental civilisa-
tions” appeared at liberty to move around the venue,
they were not put on display, and devoted their time
to the activities for which they had been contracted
(such as traditional songs and dances, handicrafts
or sale of products). Once their working day was
completed, they were free to visit the exhibition or
Figure 11. Poster from the Colonial Exhibition, Paris, 1906 (author: Firmin Bouisset). 1643–1945: L’Histoire par l’image
(http://www.histoire-image.org).
14 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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Figure 12. Poster from the Tervuren Colonial Exhibiton at the Brussels Universal Exhibition of 1910. Wikimedia Commons.
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 15
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travel around Paris. However, the same could not be
said for the Guineans arriving at the Seville Ibero-
American Exhibition of 1929, where they were
clearly depicted in a savagist context, similar to the
way in which Africans had been displayed in colonial
and even commercial exhibitions in the nineteenth
century (Sánchez-Gómez, 2006).
Another interwar colonial exhibition which was
unable to free itself from nineteenth-century ste-
reotypes was the one held in Oporto in 1934, which
included several living villages inhabited by natives,
children included (Serén, 2001). Their presence in the
city and the fact that they were displayed and lived
within the same exhibition space was something
that neither the press nor contemporary politicians
saw fit to criticise. In fact it was the pretos (black
African men) and especially pretas (black African
women) who were the main attraction for thousands
of visitors who thronged to the event, which was
probably related to the fact that all the natives were
bare-chested (figure13). Interestingly, the Catholic
Church did not take offense, perhaps interpreting
the women shown as being merely “black savages”
who had little to do with chaste Portuguese women.
Of course they had no objections to the exhibition
of human beings either.
Two interwar exhibitions (Seville and Oporto)
have been cited as examples where the management
of indigenous participants markedly resembled the
practices of the nineteenth century. However, this
should not imply that other events refrained from
the (more or less) sophisticated manipulation of
the native presence. The most significant example
was the Parisian International Colonial Exhibition
of 1931.14 Some historians highlight the fact that
the general organiser, Marshall Lyautey, managed
to impose his criterion that the exhibition should
not include displays of the traditional “black vil-
lages” or “indigenous villages” inhabited by natives.
Although it is true that the official (French and
International) sections did not include this feature,15
there can be little doubt that this was a gigantic
ethnic spectacle, where hundreds of native peoples
(who were present in the city as artists, artisans or
simply as guests) were exhibited and manipulated as
a source of propaganda of the highest order for the
colonial enterprise. This is just one more example,
although a particularly significant one, of the multi-
faceted character that ethnic shows acquired. It is
difficult to define these simply on the basis of their
brutality or “animal” characteristics, their closeness
to Hagenbeck’s Völkerschauen or the anthropologi-
cal exhibitions that were organised at the Jardin
d’Acclimatation in late-nineteenth century Paris.
The last major European colonial exhibition took
place in the anachronistic Belgian Congo section of
Figure 13. Postcard of Roshina, Guinean woman “Queen” of the First Colonial Portuguese Exhibition, Oporto, 1934. Photograh
from the Casa Alvao. Delcampe.net (http://timbres.delcampe.net).
16 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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the Brussels Universal Exhibition of 1958, the first
to be held after the Second World War.16 In prin-
ciple, its contents were organised around a discourse
which defended the moral values of interracial fra-
ternity and which set out to convince both Belgian
society and the Congolese that Belgians were only
in Congo to civilise, and not to exploit. In order to
prove the authenticity of this discourse, the organis-
ers went to great pains to avoid the jingoistic exoti-
cism which had characterised most colonial exhibits
thus far. In accordance with this, the event did not
include the traditional, demeaning spectacle of
natives living within the exhibition space. However,
it did include an exotic section, where several dozen
Congolese artisans demonstrated their skills to the
audience and sold the products manufactured there
in a context which was intended to be purely com-
mercial. Unfortunately, the good will of the organ-
isers was betrayed by an element of the public, who
could not help confronting the Africans in a manner
reminiscent of their grandparents back in 1897. This
resulted in the artisans abruptly leaving the exhibi-
tion for Congo after being shocked by the insolence
and bad manners of some of the visitors.
The Congolese presence in Brussels was not lim-
ited to these artisans: almost seven hundred Africans
arrived, two hundred of which were tourists who
had been invited with the specific purpose of visit-
ing the exhibition. Most of them were members of
the “Association of African Middle Classes”, that is,
they were part of the “evolved elite”. The remain-
ing figures were made up of people who were car-
rying out some sort of task in the colonial section
of the exhibition, whether as specialised workers,
dancers, guides or as assistants in the various sec-
tions, perhaps including some members of the Public
Force, made up of natives. The presence in Brussels
of the tourists, in particular, was part of a policy of
association, which, according to the organisers, was
intended to prepare “the Congolese population for
the complete realisation of their human destiny.” The
Belgian population, in turn, would have the chance to
become better acquainted with these people through
a “direct, personal and free contact with the civilised
Congolese” (Delhalle, 1985: 44). Neither this specific
measure nor any others taken to bring blacks and
whites closer seem to have had any practical effect
whatsoever. In fact, although the Congolese visitors
were cared for relatively well (although not without
differences or setbacks), their movements during
their stay in Brussels were under constant scrutiny,
to prevent them from being “contaminated” by the
“bad habits” of the metropolitan citizens.
Despite everything mentioned thus far, or per-
haps even because of it, the 1958 exhibition was an
enormous public success, on a par with the colonial
events of the past. This time, as before, it was predi-
cated on a largely negative image of the Congolese
population. Barely any critical voices were heard
against the exhibiting model or the abuses of the
colonial system, not even from the political left.
Finally, as with earlier colonial exhibitions, it is
obvious that what was shown in Brussels had lit-
tle to do with the reality of life in Congo. In fact,
as the exhibition closed down, in October 1958,
Patrice Lumumba founded the Congolese National
Movement. On the 11th of January of 1959, repres-
sion of the struggles for independence escalated
into the bloody killings of Léopoldville, the colonial
capital. Barely one year later, on the 30th of June
1960, Belgium formally acknowledged the indepen-
dence of the new Democratic Republic of Congo;
two years later Rwanda and Burundi followed.17
MISSIONARY EXHIBITIONS: DOMINATION,
FAITH AND SPECTACLE
The excitement that exhibitions generated in
thesecond half of the nineteenth century provoked
reactions from many quarters, including Christian
churches. Of course, the event which shook Protestant
propagandist sensibilities the hardest (as Protestants
were the first to take part in the exhibition game) was
the 1851 London Exhibition. However, the interest
which both the Anglican Church and many evangeli-
cal denominations expressed in participating in this
great event was initially met with hesitation and even
rejection by the organisers (Cantor, 2011). Finally
their participation was accepted, but only two mis-
sionary societies were authorised to officially become
an integral part of the exhibition, and they could
only do so as editors of printed religious works.
The problems that were documented in London
in 1851 continued to affect events organised through-
out the rest of the century; in fact, the presence of the
Christian churches was permitted on only two occa-
sions, both in Paris, at the exhibitions of 1867 and
1900. At the first of these, it was only Protestant organ-
isations that participated, as the Catholic Church did
not yet recognise the importance of such an event as
an exhibitional showcase. By the time of the second,
which was the last great exhibition of the nineteenth
century and one of the most grandiose of all time, the
situation had changed dramatically; both Protestants
and Catholics participated and the latter (the French
Church, to be precise) did so with greater success than
its Protestant counterpart.18
The opposition that missionary societies encoun-
tered at nineteenth-century international exhibi-
tions encouraged them to organise events of their
own. The first autonomous missionary events were
Protestant and possibly took place prior to 1851. In
any case, this has been confirmed as the year that
the Methodist Wesleyan Missionary Society organ-
ised a missionary exhibition (which took place at the
same time as the International Exhibition). Small
in size and very simple in structure, it was held for
only two days during the month of June, although it
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provided the extraordinary opportunity to see and
acquire shells, corals and varied ethnographic mate-
rials (including idols) from Tonga and Fiji.19 The
exhibition’s aim was very specific: to make a profit
from ticket sales and the materials exhibited and to
seek general support for the missionary enterprise.
Whether or not they were directly influenced by
the international event of 1851, the modest British
missionary exhibitions of the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury began to evolve rapidly from the 1870s, reach-
ing truly spectacular proportions in the first third
of the twentieth century. This enormous success
was due to a particular set of circumstances which
were not true for the Catholic sphere. Firstly, the
exhibits were a fantastic source of propaganda, and
furthermore, they generated a direct and immedi-
ate cash income. This is significant considering that
Protestant church societies and committees neither
depended upon, nor were linked to (at least not
directly or officially) civil administration and almost
all revenue came from the personal contributions of
the faithful. Secondly, because Protestants organ-
ised their own events, there was no reason for them
to participate in the official colonial exhibitions,
with which the Catholic missions became repeat-
edly involved once the old prejudices of government
had fallen away by the later years of the nineteenth
century. In this way, evangelical communities were
able to maintain their independence from the impe-
rial enterprise, yet in a manner that did not preclude
them from collaborating with it whenever it was in
their interests to do so.
However, whether Catholic or Protestant, the
main characteristic of the missionary exhibitions
in the timeframe of the late-nineteenth and early-
twentieth century, was their ethnological intent
(Sánchez-Gómez, 2013). The ethnographic objects
of converted peoples (and of those who had yet to
be converted) were noteworthy for their exoticism
and rarity, and became a true magnet for audiences.
They were also supposedly irrefutable proof of the
“backward” and even “depraved” nature of such
peoples, who had to be liberated by the redemp-
tive missions which all Christians were expected
to support spiritually and financially. But as tastes
changed and the public began to lose interest, the
exhibitions started to grow in size and complexity,
and increasingly began to feature new attractions,
such as dioramas and sculptures of native groups.
Finally, the most sophisticated of them began to
include the natives themselves as part of the show. It
must be said that, but for rare exceptions, these were
not exhibitions in the style of the famous German
Völkerschauen or British ethnological exhibitions,
but mere performances; in fact, the “guests” had
already been baptized, were Christians, and alleg-
edly willing to collaborate with their benefactors.
Whilst the Protestant churches (British and
North American alike) produced representations
of indigenous peoples with the greatest frequency
and intensity, it was (as far as we know) the (Italian)
Catholic Church that had the dubious honour of
being the first to display natives at a missionary
exhibition, and did so in a clearly savagist and rudi-
mentary fashion, which could even be described
as brutal. This occurred in the religious section of
the Italian-American Exhibition of Genoa in 1892
(Bottaro, 1984; Perrone, n.d.). As a shocking addi-
tion to the usual ethnographic and missionary col-
lections, seven natives were exhibited in front of the
audience: four Fuegians and three Mapuches of
both sexes (children, young and fully-grown adults)
brought from America by missionaries (figure 14).
The Fuegians, who were dressed only in skins and
armed with bows and arrows, spent their time inside
a hut made from branches which had been built in
the garden of the pavilion housing the missionary
exhibition. The Mapuches were two young girls and
a man; the three of them lived inside another hut,
where they made handicrafts under the watchful eye
of their keepers.
The exhibition appears to have been a great suc-
cess, but it must have been evident that the model
was too simple in concept, and inhumanitarian in
its approach to the indigenous people present. In
fact, whilst subsequent exhibitions also featured a
native presence (always Christianised) at the invita-
tion of the clergy, the Catholic Church never again
fell into such a rough presentation and representa-
tion of the obsolete and savage way of life of its
converted. To provide an illustration of those times,
now happily overcome by the missionary enterprise,
Catholic congregations resorted to dioramas and
sculptures, some of which were of superb technical
and artisticquality.
Although the Catholic Church may have organ-
ised the first live missionary exhibition, it should not
be forgotten that they joined the exhibitional sphere
much later than the evangelical churches. Also, a con-
siderable number of their displays were associated
with colonial events, something that the Protestant
churches avoided. This happened, for example, at
the colonial exhibitions of Lyon (1894), Berlin 1896
(although this also involved Protestant churches) and
Brussels-Tervuren (1897), as well as at the National
Exhibition of 1898 in Turin. Years later, the great
colonial (national and international) exhibitions of
the interwar period continued to receive the enthu-
siastic and uncritical participation of Catholic mis-
sions (although some, as in 1931, included Protestant
missions too). The most remarkable examples were
the Iberian-American Exhibition of Seville in 1929,
the International Exhibitions held at Amberes
(1930) and Paris (1931), and the Oporto (1934) and
Lisbon (1937 and 1940) National Exhibitions.20 This
colonial-missionary association did not prevent the
Catholic Church from organising its own autono-
mous exhibitions, through which it tried to emulate
18 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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and even surpass its more experienced Protestant
counterpart. Their belated effort culminated in two
of the most spectacular Christian missionary exhibi-
tions of all time: the Vatican Missionary Exhibition
of 1925 and the Barcelona Missionary Exhibition
of 1929, which was associated with the great inter-
national show of that year (Sánchez-Gómez, 2007
and 2006). Although both events documented native
nuns and priests as visitors, no humans were exhib-
ited. Again, dioramas and groups of sculptures were
featured, representing both religious figures and
indigenous peoples (figures15 y 16).
Let us return to the Protestant world. Whilst it
was the reformed churches that most readily incor-
porated native participation, they seemed to do so
in a more sensitive and less brutalised manner than
the Genoese Catholic Exhibition of 1892. We know
of their presence at the first North American exhi-
bitions: one of which was held at the Ecumenical
Conference on Foreign Missions, celebrated in New
York in 1909 and, most significantly, at the great inter-
denominational The World in Boston Exhibition, in
1911 (Hasinoff, 2011). Nativeparticipation has also
been recorded at the two most important British
contemporary exhibitions: The Orient in London
(held by the London Missionary Society in 1908)
(figure17) and Africa in the East (organised by the
Church Missionary Society in 1909). Both exhibi-
tions toured a number of British towns until the late
1920s, although for the most part without indige-
nous participation (Coombes, 1994; Cheang, 2006–
2007).21 However, the most spectacular Protestant
exhibition, with hundreds of natives, dozens of
stands, countless parades, theatrical performances,
the latest thrill rides and exotic animals on display,
was the gigantic Centenary Exhibition of American
Methodist Missions, celebrated in Columbus in 1919
and popularly known as the Methodist’s World Fair
(Anderson, 2006).
The exhibition model at these early-twentieth
century Protestant events was very similar to the
colonial model. Native villages were reconstructed
and ethnographic collections were presented,
alongside examples of local flora and fauna, and
of course, an abundance of information about mis-
sionary work, in which its evangelising, educational,
Figure 14. Fueguians at the Italian-American Exhibition of Genoa in 1892 (Bottaro, 1984).
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 19
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medical and welfare aspects were presented. Some
of these were equally as attractive to the audi-
ence (irrespective of their religious beliefs) as con-
temporary colonial or commercial exhibitions.
However, it may be noted that the participation
of Christianised natives took a radically different
form from those of the colonial and commercial
world. Those who were most capable and had a
good command of English served as guides in the
sections corresponding to their places of origin,
a task that they tended to carry out in traditional
clothing. More frequently these new Christians
assumed roles with less responsibility, such as the
manufacture of handicrafts, the sale of exotic
objects or the recreation of certain aspects of their
previous way of life. The organisers justified their
presence by claiming that they were merely actors,
representing their now-forgotten savage way of life.
This may very well have been the case.
At the Protestant exhibitions of the 1920s and
1930s, the presence of indigens became progres-
sively less common until it eventually disappeared.
This notwithstanding, the organisers came to ben-
efit from a living resource which complemented dis-
plays of ethnographic materials whilst being more
attractive to the audience than the usual dioramas.
This was a theatrical representation of the native
way of life (combined with scenes of missionary
interaction) by white volunteers (both men and
women) who were duly made up and in some cases
appeared alongside real natives (figure18). Some of
these performances were short, but others consisted
of several acts and featured dozens of characters
on stage. Regardless of their form, these spectacles
were inherent to almost any British and North
American exhibition, although much less frequent
in continental Europe.
Since the 1960s, the Christian missionary exhibi-
tion (both Protestant and Catholic) has been con-
ducted along very different lines from those which
have been discussed here. All direct or indirect
associations with colonialism have been definitively
given up; it has broken with racial or ethnological
interpretations of converted peoples, and strongly
defends its reputed autonomy from any politi-
cal groups or interests, without forgetting that the
essence of evangelisation is to maximize the visibil-
ity of its educational and charitable work among the
most disadvantaged.
FINAL WORD
The three most important categories of modern
ethnic show –commercial ethnological exhibitions,
colonial exhibitions and missionary exhibitions–
have been examined. All three resorted, to varying
degrees, to the exhibition of exotic human beings in
order to capture the attention of their audience, and,
ultimately, to achieve certain goals: be they success
in business and personal enrichment, social, politi-
cal or financial backing for the colonial enterprise,
or support for missionary work. Whilst on occasion
they coincided at the same point in time and within
the same context of representation, the uniqueness
of each form of exhibition has been emphasised.
However, this does not mean that they are com-
pletely separate phenomena, or that their represen-
tation of exotic “otherness” is homogeneous.
Missionary exhibitions displayed perhaps the
most singular traits due to their spiritual vision.
However, it is clear that many made a determined
effort to produce direct, visual and emotional spec-
tacles and some, in so doing, resorted to representa-
tions of natives which were very similar to those of
colonial exhibitions. Can we speak then, of a con-
vergence of designs and interests? I honestly do not
think so. At many colonial exhibitions, organisers
showed a clear intention to portray natives as fear-
some, savage individuals (sometimes even describ-
ing them as cannibals) who somehow needed to be
subjugated. Peoples who were considered, to a lesser
or greater extent, to be civilised were also displayed
(as at the interwar exhibitions). However, the pur-
pose of this was often to publicise the success of the
Figure 15. A Mapuche family being adoctrinated by
a Capuchin missionary. Sculptural group at the Vatican
Missionary Exhibiton of 1925 (Considine, 1925).
20 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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colonial enterprise in its campaign for “the domesti-
cation of the savage”, rather than to present a mes-
sage of humanitarianism or universal fraternity.
Missionary exhibitions provided information and
material examples of the former way of life of the
converted, in which natives demonstrated that they
had abandoned their savage condition and partici-
pated in the exhibition for the greater glory of the
evangelising mission. Moreover, they also became
living evidence that something much more transcen-
dent than any civilising process was taking place:
that once they had been baptised, anyone, no matter
how wild they had once been, could become part of
the same universal Christian family.
It is certainly true that the shows that the audi-
ences enjoyed at all of these exhibitions (whether
missionary, colonial or even commercial) were
very similar. Yet in the case of the former, the act
of exhibition took place in a significantly more
humanitarian context than in the others. And while
it is evident that indigenous cultures and peoples
were clearly manipulated in their representation at
missionary exhibitions, this did not mean that the
exhibited native was merely a passive element in
the game. And there is something more. The domi-
nating and spectacular qualities present in almost
all missionary exhibitions should not let us forget
one last factor which was essential to their concep-
tion, their development and even their longevity:
Christian faith. Without Christian faith there would
have been no missionary exhibitions, and had any-
thing similar been organised, it would not have had
the same meaning. It was essential that authentic
Christian faith existed within the ecclesiastical hier-
archy and within those responsible for congrega-
tions, missionary societies and committees. But the
faith that really made the exhibitions possible was
the faith of the missionaries, of others who were
involved in their implementation and, of course,
of those who visited. Although it was never recog-
nised as such, this was perhaps an uncritical faith,
complacent in its acceptance of the ways in which
human diversity was represented and with ethical
values that occasionally came close to the limits of
Christian morality. But it was a faith nonetheless, a
faith which intensified and grew with each exhibi-
tion, which surely fuelled both Christian religiosity
(Catholic and Protestant alike) and at least several
years of missionary enterprise, years crucial for the
imperialist expansionism of the West. It is an objec-
tive fact that the display of human beings at com-
mercial and colonial shows was always much more
Figure 16. Carolinian family. Sculptural group exhibited by the Jesuits at the Spanish Missionary Exhibition, Barcelona, 1929
(Revista de la Exposición Misional Española, November, 1929).
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 21
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explicit and degrading than at any missionary exhi-
bition. To state what has just been proposed more
bluntly: missionary exhibitions were not “human
zoos”. However, it is less clear whether the remain-
ing categories: are commercial and colonial exhibi-
tions worthy of this assertion (human zoos), or were
they polymorphic ethnic shows of a much greater
complexity?
The principal analytical obstacle to the use of
the term “human zoo” is that it makes an immediate
and direct association between all of these acts and
contexts and the idea of a nineteenth-century zoo.
The images of caged animals, growling and howling,
may cause admiration, but also disgust; they may
sometimes inspire tenderness, but are mainly some-
thing to be avoided and feared due to their savage
and bestial condition. This was definitely the case
for the organisers of the scientific and editorial proj-
ect cited at the beginning of this article, so it can be
no surprise that Carl Hagenbeck’s joint exhibitions
of exotic animals and peoples were chosen as the
frame of reference for human zoos. Although the
authors state in the first edition that “the human
zoo is not the exhibition of savagery but its con-
struction” [“le zoo humain n’est pas l’exhibition
de la sauvagerie, mais la construction de celle-ci”]
(Bancel et al., 2002: 17), the problem, as Blanckaert
(2002) points out, is that this alleged construction
or exhibitional structure was not present at most of
the exhibitions under scrutiny, nor (and this is an
added of mine) at those shown at the Exhibitions.
L’invention du sauvage exhibit.
Indeed, the expression “human zoo” establishes
a model which does not fit with the meagre number
of exhibitions of exotic individuals from the six-
teenth, seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, nor with
that of Saartjie Baartmann (the Hottentot Venus)
of the early nineteenth century, much less with the
freak shows of the twentieth century. Furthermore,
this model can neither be compared to most of
thenineteenth-century British human ethnological
exhibitions, nor to most of the native villages of the
colonial exhibitions, nor to the Wild West show of
Buffalo Bill, let alone to the ruralist-traditionalist
villages which were set up at many national and
international exhibitions until the interwar period.
Ultimately, their connection with many wander-
ing “black villages” or “native villages” exhibited
by impresarios at the end of the nineteenth cen-
tury could also be disputed. Moreover, many of the
shows organised by Hagenbeck number amongst
the most professional in the exhibitional universe.
The fact that they were held in zoos should not
automatically imply that the circumstances in which
they took place were more brutal or exploitative
than those of any of the other ethnic shows.
It is evident from all the shows which have been
discussed, that the differential racial condition of
the persons exhibited not only formed the basis of
their exhibition, but may also have fostered and even
founded racist reactions and attitudes held by the
public. However, there are many other factors (polit-
ical, economic and even aesthetic) which come into
play and have barely been considered, which could
be seen as encouraging admiration of the displays
of bodies, gestures, skills, creations and knowledge
which were seen as both exotic and seductive.
In fact, the indiscriminate use of the very suc-
cessful concept of “human zoo” generates two fun-
damental problems. Firstly it impedes our “true”
knowledge of the object of study itself, that is, of
the very varied ethnic shows which it intends to cata-
logue, given the great diversity of contexts, formats,
persons in charge, objectives and materialisations
that such enterprises have to offer. Secondly, the
image of the zoo inevitably recreates the idea of an
exhibition which is purely animalistic, where the only
relationship is that which exists between exhibitor
and exhibited: the complete domination of the latter
(irrational beasts) by the former (rational beings). If
we accept that the exhibited are treated merely as as
more-or-less worthy animals, the consequences are
twofold: a logical rejection of such shows past, pres-
ent and future, and the visualization of the exhibited
Figure 17. Poster for the missionary exhibitions of the
London Missionary Society, c. 1910. Artfact (http://www.
artfact.com).
22 • L. A. Sánchez-Gómez
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as passive victims of racism and capitalism in the
West. It is therefore of no surprise that the research
barely considers the role that these individuals may
have played, the extent to which their participation
in the show was voluntary and the interests which
may have moved some of them to take part in these
shows. Ultimately, no evaluation has been made of
how these shows may have provided “opportunity
contexts” for the exhibited, whether as commercial,
colonial or missionary exhibitis. Whilst it is true
that the exhibited peoples’ own voice is the hardest
to record in any of these shows, greater effort could
have been made in identifying and mapping them,
as, when this happens, the results obtained are truly
interesting (Dreesbach, 2005: 78).
Before we conclude, it must be said that the pro-
posed analysis does not intend to soften or justify
the phenomenon of the ethnic show. Even in the
least dramatic and exploitative cases it is evident that
the essence of these shows was a marked inequality,
in which every supposed “context of interaction”
established a dichotomous relationship between
black and white, North and South, colonisers and
colonised, and ultimately, between dominators and
dominated. My intention has been to propose a
more-or-less classifying and clarifying approach to
this varied world of human exhibitions, to make
a basic inventory of their forms of representation
and to determine which are the essential traits that
define them, without losing sight of the contingent
factors which they rely upon.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The present article is part of the research proj-
ect HAR2009-08982, financed by the Ministry of
Economy and Competitiveness, Spain.
NOTES
1. In order to avoid loading the text through the excessive use
of punctuation marks, I have decided not to put words as
blacks, savages or primitives in inverted commas; but by no
means does this mean my acceptance of their contemporary
racist connotations.
2. Apart from its magnificent catalogue, the contents of
the exhibition are also available online: http://www.
quaibranly.fr/uploads/tx_gayafeespacepresse/MQB_DP_
Exhibitions_01.pdf [accessed 13/November/2012].
3. Missionary exhibitions are not an integral part of the rep-
ertoire of exhibitions studied as part of the French project
on “Human zoos”, nor do they appear at the great Quai de
Branly exhibition of 2012.
4. The Marseille and Paris exhibitions competed with each
other. The Festival of Empire was organised in London
to celebrate the coronation of George V, thus also being
known as the Coronation Exhibition. For more information
about these and other British colonial exhibitions, or exhi-
bitions which had important colonial sections, organised
between 1890 and 1914, see Coombes (1994: 85–108) and
Mackenzie (2008).
Figure 18. White men and women representing Native Americans at The World in Boston missionary exposition, 1911, postcard.
Ebay (www.ebay.com).
Human Zoos or Ethnic Shows • 23
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5. These were the Franco-British exhibition (1908) and the
Japan-British Exhibition (1910); although their contents
were not exclusively colonial these do make up an impor-
tant part of the exhibitions. They are both private and run
by the successful show businessman Imre Kiralfy. For the
former, see Coombes (1994: 187–213), Leymarie (2009) and
Geppert (2010: 101–133); and for the latter, Mutsu (2001).
6. This was the International Imperial Exhibition, where the
Great Britain, France and Russia took part, although other
countries also had a minor presence. It was organized by the
businessman Imre Kiralfy.
7. The exhibition fever of those years even hit Japan, where
colonial and anthropological exhibitions were organized in
Osaka (1903) and Tokyo (1913). These showed Ainu peo-
ples and persons from the newly incorporated territories of
the Japanese Empire (Siddle, 1996; Nanta, 2011).
8. For a good summary of the extensive colonial propaganda
movement which spread around Europe during the inter-
war period (with detailed references to the exhibitions) see
Stanard (2009).
9. British Empire Exhibition.
10. After its defeat in the Great War, the 119 Versailles Treaty
article specified that Germany should give up all its over-
seas territories. Therefore, whenever exhibitions were cel-
ebrated during the interwar period Germany lacked any
possessions whatsoever. Thus, German competitions men-
tioned (including Vienna) were nothing but mere patriotic
exhibitions of colonial revisionism, which were celebrated
during the Weimar Republic and reached their heyday in
the Nazi era.
11. This was the Mostra Coloniale Celebrativa della Vittoria
Imperiale, a propagandist national-colonial exhibition of a
strong rationalist character.
12. This was the British Empire Exhibition.
13. This was the grandiose Prima (and unique) mostra triennale
delle Terre Italiane d’Oltremare, which was to be celebrated
between the 9 of May and the 15 of October 1940, and which
was suspended after a month owing to Mussolini’s declara-
tion of war on France and Great Britain. See Kivelitz (1999:
162–171), Abbattista and Labanca (2008), Vargaftig (2010)
and, more specifically, Dore (1992).
14. The available literature on the exhibition of 1931 is very
abundant. A very brief selection of titles could include the
following: Ageron (1984), Blévis et al. (2008), Exposition
Coloniale (2006), Hodeir and Pierre (1991), L’ Estoile
(2007), Lebovics (2008) and Morton (2000).
15. However, the organization of two purely commercial ethno-
logical exhibitions was authorized.
16. On the Congolese section of the 1958 Brussels exhibition,
the works of Cornelis (2005), Halen (1995), and Stanard
(2005 and 2011) can be used as references.
17. The territory of Rwanda-Urundi (former German colony
of Rwanda and Burundi) was administered as a trusteeship
by Belgium from 1924, on accepting a League of Nations
mandate which was renewed through the UN after the end
of the Second World War.
18. For the encounters and disagreements between Christian
exhibitions and Universal exhibitions during the nineteenth
century, see Sánchez-Gómez (2011).
19. The New-Zealander (Auckland), 22 October 1851. Available
at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast
[accessed 3/April/2009].
20. This was the Historical Exhibition of Occupation (1937)
and the Exhibition of the Portuguese World (1940); For
the Catholic Church’s participation in these events, see
Sánchez-Gómez (2009).
21. The presence of natives has not been recorded at Protestant
exhibitions celebrated in France, Sweden, Switzerland or
Germany during those years.
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... Si nos centramos en lo acaecido en España, también contamos con interesantes estudios, ocupando un lugar destacado los desarrollados por el historiador Luis Ángel Sánchez Gómez (2003Gómez ( , 2005Gómez ( , 2006Gómez ( , 2013. Algunos de los casos más conocidos durante el siglo XIX y principios del XX son el Poblado Ashanti que se instaló en Madrid y Barcelona en 1897 y la Exposición Iberoamericana de Sevilla de 1929, en la que el mundo colonial estuvo representado por las secciones de Marruecos y de la Guinea española. ...
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