Monday, October 26, 2009
1. Human Zoos 2. Bad Information
The photograph posted here brings up two issues. I guess they should be approached separately.
One, it's evidence of a remarkable practice in modern history, the assembling of human zoos. Explorers and adventurers have long returned home with living human specimens for display, as Columbus did when he took indigenous "Americans" back to Spain in 1493. One of the Medicis, a Cardinal, is supposed to have assembled a collection of people of different races, as well as animals, in the 1600s. But this practice really got into high gear in the late 19th century, with exhibitions of humans in Hamburg, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York and Paris. They were wildly popular. Nubians from Sudan, Inuit (Esquimaux) from Labrador, Samoans - it must have been astonishing for Caucasians to see these strangely different (yet similar) people. The 1889 Parisian World's Fair had over 400 indigenous people as a major attraction. As bizarre as the practice may seem by our standards, I think that these displays must have been truly marvelous, and in keeping with human curiosity. So I don't presume to judge them too harshly for what could be characterized in contemporary sensibility as exploitation. But I doubt that the onlookers learned much truth about the people they were staring at.
The second issue is related to the first, at least in the pictures I've posted here. Recently I read some disagreement about who was pictured in a photograph. One side relied on the caption on the back side of the photograph as proof of who was depicted; the other side's opinion, based on having seen other images of the person, was that the caption was wrong.
So have a look at the photograph here. It was taken at the 1889 Parisian World's Fair. On the back is a pencil inscription identifying the people shown as a "Group of Africans." I think you'll agree that at most two of them may be African. The others appear to be Asian - my guess is from Southeast Asia. Maybe their clothing and accessories are authentic; maybe they're theatrical. Maybe the person labeling the photograph was misinformed or simply careless.
I'd say whatever truth was there to be gleaned from the exhibition or the photograph, you wouldn't find it without first distrusting what you're being told or shown.