The cultural legacy of the "human zoos" in the 19th and early 20th century and Brett Bailey’s "Exhibit B"

Seminar Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Sophia Barolo (Author)



1. Introduction

2. History of ethnological shows or “human zoos“
2.a. Ethnological shows
2.b. World fair

3. The case of Sarah Baartman also known as the „Hottentot Venus“

4. Exhibit B by Brett Bailey

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

It is in the nature of human kind to be curious and to observe things that are new to the eye. Only by observation can be recognized whether something is a danger or not. The unusual thus always exerts a strong appeal to the observer, the "exotic" has always attracted attention. This even more when an unfamiliar looking or "exotic" human being is concerned, a being that seems very familiar to the viewer and possibly even shows him similarities to himself.

This is one of the reasons why "wild people" have been displayed at fun fairs and exhibitions during centuries, and since traveling was dangerous or not possible at all and a worldwide media network did not exist, these exhibitions were often the only opportunity to see people from far away in real life. It is hardly surprising that this natural interest in the stranger has quickly been utilized by some people for their own benefit, whether to generate attention, to demonstrate power or to generate economic profits.

In my paper I want to analyze the beginnings of the so-called „human zoos“ of the late 19th and early 20th century and whether there are still continuities of these practices in the present world. What are the consequences, what are the impacts? I will further look into the example of Sarah Baartman, who was objectified and exhibited 1810 to 1815, in order to illustrate the horrible fates of people on display in Europe. Are human beings still exhibited and exploited in the way they used to be? The South African Artist Brett Bailey made an attempt to spread awareness of the highly popular human zoos with his show Exhibit B. The show was received very controversial by the public and in London the show even had to be cancelled due to the dimensions of the protests. The question is whether by re-creating scenes of slavery his show is able to provide a critique of racism and human-zoos or whether it is a mere reproduction of human zoos that is racist in itself.

2. History of ethnological shows or “human zoos“

2.a. Ethnological Shows

The interest of Europeans in people from remote parts of the world was very great at all times. In the early modern period, inhabitants of overseas regions in particular piqued the curiosity of those living in the Old World. They were brought to Europe, where they were exhibited at royal courts, presented to rich merchants, and became attractions on fairs. They sat model for painters and sculptors. Poets and writers immortalized them in their works; they were the subject of theological, philosophical, scientific and medical treatises, and found entry into fairy tales and myths.

Already Columbus brought seven "Arawak Indians" from his first trip from the Antilles to Europe in the 15th century. They attracted great attention and became a sensation at the reception at the royal court and on parades through the city. Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512) abducted over two hundred men to Europe in the course of his four journeys to America, who were exhibited on fairs in Spain (Dreesbach 2005: 23).

Since the end of the fifteenth century "exotic people“, besides their presence in European courts, have always been the object of exhibitions at folk festivals and fairs, where bustling showmen wanted to make big money with them.

Frequently, for example, "Eskimos" were exhibited. Apart from the people, these exhibitions usually also featured animals and objects that belonged to the lives of those people in their homeland. The number of exhibitions of Indians in England was so high, that the House of Lords even issued a law in 1765 which should prevent the Indians from being abducted. However, it didn’t prohibit them to be exhibited (Dreesbach 2005: 25).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a new form of entertainment began to emerge from this in Central Europe and North America, which should continue to be popular with the public until the thirties of the twentieth century: in so-called “ethnological shows“ people of supposedly alien cultures were exhibited. They were recruited for a period of several months or even one to two years, in order to present the typical activities and rituals of their homeland to the paying visitors. Those ethnological shows remained for a season at a certain performance venue, or they went on tour, often through whole Central Europe (Thode-Arora 2004: 25).

Ethnological shows were a huge thing in Germany and people were recruited from many regions of the world. The audience could gaze at North American and South American Indians, Eskimos, Bedouins, Moroccans, Egyptians, Burmese, Javanese, Indians, Ceylonese, Kalmucks and Samoyed from the Russian Empire, Australian aborigines, Samoans and Hawaiians among others. The venues were zoos, panoptics, theaters, restaurant halls and - since the end of the First World War - fun fairs.

At the latest since the 1830s these ethnological exhibitions toured through Germany. Strengthened by the commercial success of large entrepreneurs, such as the company of Carl Hagenbeck, which since the mid-seventies intensified this area of show business, ethnological exhibitions downright boomed in the eighties (Thode-Arora 2004: 28).

Carl Hagenbeck, who began his career in his father's company for trade in livestock, is regarded as one of the pioneers of the big ethnological shows. In 1875 he ordered a herd of reindeer, and had some lappings to accompany them. In Hamburg the group (three men, one woman, two children and 31 reindeer) was exhibited on Hagenbeck's grounds (Dreesbach 2005: 44). It turned out to be a huge success and Hagenbeck immediately began planning the next exhibition with Nubians from Sudan. This „group of savages“ with their „wild personalities“, as Hagenbeck describes them in his autobiography, attracted an enormous amount of people and over thousand German visitors wanted to see them already on the first day of their appearance in Breslau. After this, the Nubians were send on tour to other European cities, including Paris and London (Corbey 1993: 345).

Hagenbeck shaped the business of ethnological shows insofar as he placed great value on (supposed) authenticity. Hagenbeck transformed the picture of the „savage“ from the mostly pitiful creatures, which were initially shown in narrow wooden cages at folk festivals, to proud warriors and erotic beauties. Through clever staging, they seemed to offer a piece of life from their homeland.

They were shown in sceneries that pretended to be nature, with real plants and animals, reproduced houses on vast areas. Visitors should be able to immerse themselves in the real life of the "savages". However, the depiction usually corresponded less to reality than to the clichés of the respective people existing in the minds of the Europeans. These scenes, confirming stereotypes, took the viewers on a journey into their own dream worlds, where erotic "devadasis", fearless "Indians" and bloodthirsty "savages" gave the tone (Dreesbach 2005: 49f).

Fear was only one of the mixed feelings German citizens experienced on visits of these spectacles. Other reactions that were reported by the press at the time were curiosity and sexual fascination. The supposedly great sexual potency of the barely dressed savages was the focus of admiration, but competed with repulsion because of their allegedly „bestial lust“ (Corbey 1993: 346f).

In addition, Hagenbeck underlined the anthropological scientific value of the exhibited subjects.

The „wild“ foreigners became more and more interesting in terms of science, especially for physical anthropology and natural history. Besides their curiosity value and pure entertainment, their educational value was stressed more and more. Hagenback even advertised his shows as „anthropological-zoological exhibitions“ (Corbey 1993: 354).

The participants of the ethnological shows were carefully and individually selected. They had to correspond to the physical ideal type or rather the idea of the ideal type of the respective region. Local raw materials, clothing and jewelry, as well as household utensils were purchased and brought to Europe alongside. Whether these corresponded to the actual ethnicity of those people was secondary, what counted was that they were in accordance to the idea and clichés in the audience’s heads. The human exhibits had to stay in their designated areas of the exhibition space. The local citizens would visit and inspect them from outside the boundaries between the two worlds. All signs of adaption to the European culture had to be avoided as long as the natives were on show. Their primitivity was staged in every detail (Corbey 1993: 344).

There is evidence that contracts were signed with the participants, which regulated diet, payment, salary, travel expenses, working time and activities (Thode-Arora 2004: 32). So the exhibitions were also a business for the participants from overseas. According to Thode-Arora, it is not to be assumed that the people exhibited in these ethnological shows were held like animals or prisoners (Thode-Arora 2004: 37). Corbey on the other hand, describes a different scenario. According to him, many foreigners had to fight against homesickness, infections, emotional confusion and had difficulties with adjusting to the European climate and eating habits. There are many cases of people resisting the roles that were forced on them, for example by running away. Sometimes the bad treatment even led to court cases. Many died from sicknesses soon after they arrived in Europe (Corbey 1993: 348).

The concept of whole savage villages became more and more popular after the impressively large- scale Ashantee show in the Viennese zoological garden in 1897/98 happened to be a huge success. The exhibitions reached gigantic proportions on large areas and the numbers of participants grew to the hundreds (Thode-Arora 2004: 28).

The start of the first world war brought this development to a more or less abrupt ending. Access to cinemas and adventure movies also played an important role. They could satisfy the longing for an exotic dream world much better than even the most meticulously assembled ethnological show. The Nazi regime eventually forbade old-style ethnological shows to try to concentrate all Africans and African Germans living in Germany in a "Great Africa Show", which should help to promote the neocolonial idea. After years of tough preparations and only a few performances, the project was finally abandoned in 1940 (Thode-Arora 2004: 28).

2. b. World fairs

Another venue where similar exhibitions were held were the world fairs or international expositions (exposition universelle). They were enormous and important happenings that combined trade and industrial fairs, carnival, music, political manifestations and exhibitions. The focus was not only on the economic interest of the participating country but also to promote the own culture and countries as well as on learning about the others. Each participating country built its own monumental pavilion in its own particular style and the goal was to have the most impressive one. Examples are the Crystal Palace in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Atomium in Brussels. The first world fair took place in London in 1851 and attracted around 6 million visitors. 16 million came to see the spectacle in Paris in 1878 and in 1900, again in Paris and still before the era of cinema and television, 50 million were counted (Corbey 1993: 339).

Natives from the colonies, next to all kinds of objects and products from their homelands, quickly became a part of the world fairs, entertaining and allegedly educating Western people. Paris in 1878 was the first host of several „native villages“ where people from non-Western cultures could be observed. 400 natives from the French colonies Indochina, Tahiti and Senegal were given a very positive reception by the public (Corbey 1993: 341f).

3. The case of Sarah Baartman also known as the „Hottentot Venus“

The case of Saartjie or Sarah Baartman was one of the most famous during the course of the exhibition of African bodies. Because of her extreme steatopygia (enlargement of the behind), she was given the name „Hottentot Venus" and was presented by ruthless event organizers from 1810 to 1815 in London and Paris (Thode-Arora 2004: 25).


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The cultural legacy of the "human zoos" in the 19th and early 20th century and Brett Bailey’s "Exhibit B"
University of Lisbon
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Bitte unter Pseudonym "Mag. Sophia Barolo" veröffentlichen.
Human Zoos, Menschenzoos, Brett Bailey, Exhibit B, Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert, Aufarbeitung, Kolonialismus, Hottentot Venus, Sarah Bartman, Hagenbeck, Weltausstellung
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Sophia Barolo (Author), 2017, The cultural legacy of the "human zoos" in the 19th and early 20th century and Brett Bailey’s "Exhibit B", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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