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Human zoos in global contexts

Human zoos in global contexts


2017 Project submitted by UCLA | Embassy of France support: $ 9000

Project coordinator: Dominic Thomas

Summary of the Project

The history of « human zoos » tells the story of women, men and children from Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and in some cases from Europe who were displayed in the West and elsewhere at universal and colonial exhibitions and fairs, in circuses, cabarets, and zoos, as well as in traveling « exotic » villages. For almost five centuries (1490-1960) these people were exhibited as « savages », in impressive « spectacles », theatricalizations, with performers, stage sets, impresarios and riveting storylines, offering the public the opportunity to « travel » to exotic destinations while observing the « authentic daily lives ». The illusion of a journey coupled with immersion in a strange universe amplified the genuine fascination experienced by the public before the meticulously choreographed spectacles. The « human zoo » itself, more often than not, stood as the first visual contact, the first encounter, between the people who were exhibited and those who went to look at them, between, as the exhibition highlighted, Them and Us. At the same time, these display institutions made it possible for anthropologists to validate their theories. Science and spectacle were mutually constitutive, inseparable elements of the world of entertainment.