Show Biz’s Ugly Past

A new exhibition at Paris' new-ish Quai Branly museum has become the most talked-about exhibition of the season, according to the Guardian. The exhibition, ‘Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage’, traces the history of publicly displaying indigenous people. The practice began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus returned from his landmark voyage to the Americas with six indigenous Caribs, who were put on show at the Spanish court. By the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, indigenous peoples, including Indigenous Australians, were being displayed in zoo-like enclosures as curios and freaks for public entertainment, often under the pretext of public education. Some, like Congolese pygmy Ota Benga, were displayed in actual zoos (in Benga’s case, Bronx Zoo). The last such display was in Belgium in 1958.

The cover of Roslyn Poignant's 2004 book, 'Professional Savages', published by Yale University Press

The cover of Roslyn Poignant's 2004 book, 'Professional Savages', published by Yale University Press

The exhibition was curated by Lilian Thuram, a former soccer player (and World Cup hero) of Caribbean origin. Thuram’s World Cup-winning teammate Christian Karembeu is of New Caledonian origin. When his grandparents migrated to France, they believed themselves to be ambassadors. Upon their arrival, they were displayed in cages, first in Paris and later in Germany, under a plaque that read ‘cannibals’.

Indigenous Australians were co-opted to be displayed as curios and freaks in Europe and North America too. In her 2004 book Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle, historian Roslyn Poignant wrote about a group of Australian Aborigines shipped to the US for this very purpose. The story was also the subject of a 1997 exhibition at the National Library of Australia.

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