The spectacle and entertainment value of living Indians in the museum

Last year we had debates about racism and neo-colonialism when the Zoo at Augsburg exhibited an "African village". The same is happening right now in Kolmårdens djurpark - the largest zoo in Scandinavia: They have engaged Massai people who "dance, sing and jump" in the zoo (more in Norwegian).

Last Thursday, anthropologist Dustin Wax has reminded us in a paper of the long history of displaying indigenous people in the museums and zoos - living people, not dead people. Even famous anthropologists as Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber have been involved in organizing "ethnographic zoos".

How are indigenous people represented? As it was the case in the zoo in Augsburg and Kolmården, the exhibitions in museums focused on the (timeless) past. Not much seems to have changed:

The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

Most organizers of these ethnographic shows had an evolutionary view of the world - in the sense that indigenous people are "less advanced" than "us". They are "stone age people" and can be used to "illustrate the advancement of evolution of man":

In the United States (...), the Indian became a symbol of the American land brought to heel by the expansion and dominance of the “civilized” Anglo-Americans—a symbolism brought to life and enacted for a self-congratulatory American public in virtually all of the world fairs and expositions hosted by American cities.

But these "Stone age tribes" are in reality no less modern than middle class Americans. So, anthropologists were horrified when they realised that people from Samoan cut their hair and adopt American garb during their lengthy cross-Pacific journey on their way to the zoo:

They were greeted with horror by the manager in charge of their exhibit at the Exposition, who quickly “put a halt to the ‘civilizing process’” (Rydell 1984: 67) and within a short while it was reported that “the Samoans [were] making a heroic and laudable effort to resume their natural state of barbarism” (Daily Inter Ocean, 14 June 1893, in Rydell 1984: 67).

Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”

>> read the whole paper: Representations of Indians in American Natural History Museums by Dustin Wax

Just a few days earlier, Kevin Friedman wrote about Ota Benga - a Kongolese was put on display in the monkey house at New York’s Bronx Zoo. He quotes from an New York Times article:

Visitors to the Monkey House that second day got an even better show. Ota Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and playing tricks on each other. The crowd loved it. To enhance the jungle effect, a parrot was put in the cage and bones had been strewn around it.

>> read the whole post


The Construction of Indigenous Culture by Anthropologists

Anthropological Days at the Olympic Games: An homage to imperialism, the exhibit of conquered peoples was designed to show how America would bring progress to savage peoples

In Detroit and London: More African Villages in the Zoo

Our obsession with the notion of the primitive society

Geldof's Live8 and Western myths about Africa

Kurt Jonassohn, On A Neglected Aspect Of Western Racism: From the beginning of the 1870s to the end of the 1930s - the exposition of so-called exotic peoples in zoological gardens attracted a huge public


Comment from: Dustin [Visitor]

Thanks for this reading. I’ve got a minor quibble, and an addition. Minor quibble: the title is “In the Flesh in the Museum” – you’ve cited the subtitle. Not a big deal, but… We academics slave long and hard over our clever titles, it’s a shame to see them cast aside in favor of our more quotidien, post-colonial explanatory subtitles.

Addition: It’s interesting what happens when the power imbalance is taken out of the equation, as in American Indians’ own museums (not that there’s no power at work, but it’s not the kind of colonial power I’m talking about here). I am thinking in particular of a display at the Mashantuckett Pequod museum, where a whole floor is dedicated to a diorama of pre-Columbian Pequod life – but as you walk through the exhibit, it subtly changes to integrate the effect of colonization. More interesting here, though, is the next floor, which details the “rebirth” of the Mashantuckett Pequod, from which stands out for me the exhitition of one of the trailers that early returnees to the reservation lived in, back when they were trying to make a go at pig farming. The Pequod are definitely not portrayed as trapped in the past, as stone-age examplars – the last thing in the Museum before the exit is a giant poster of the entire Pequod nation (some couple hundred folks, incidentally of all colors), smiling at the camera, being Pequod.

2006-08-14 @ 02:05
Comment from: [Member]

Thanks for your additions! Might be a great a variation in self-presentation as indigenous people often reproduce “exotic” stereotypes, stressing their “otherness".

Concerning the title: That’s journalistic freedom :)

2006-08-15 @ 13:37

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