Human zoos

the invention of the savage

Best exhibition award at the "Globes de cristal art et culture" ceremony

from Tuesday 29th November to Sunday 3rd June 2012

  • West Mezzanine
  • Collections ticket - full price 8.50€ and discount price 6€

Chief Curator

  • Lilian Thuram

Scientific curators

  • Pascal Blanchard
  • Nanette Jacomijn Snoep

the exhibition

HUMAN ZOOS, The invention of the savage unveils the history of women, men and children brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America to be exhibited in the Western world during circus shows, theatre or cabaret performances, fairs, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages or international and colonial fairs. The practice started in the 16th Century royal courts and continued to develop until the mid-20th Century in Europe, America and Japan.

A wide array of paintings, sculptures, posters, postcards, movies, photographs, mouldings, dioramas, miniatures and costumes provide insight into the phenomenon's growth and development and the success of the exotic performance industry. This entertainment niche captivated over a billion spectators who, between 1800 and 1958, marvelled at more than 35,000 individuals throughout the world.

Through 600 items and the screening of many film archives, the exhibition shows how this type of performance, when used as propaganda and entertainment, fashioned Western perspectives and deeply influenced a certain image of the Other for nearly five centuries.
The exhibition explores the sometimes thin borders between exotic individuals and freaks, science and voyeurism, exhibitionism and spectacle. It also questions visitors on their own contemporary biases.

Although the exhibitions gradually disappeared in the 1930s, by then, they had already created a boundary between the exhibited and the spectators. This begs the question: does this boundary still exist today?

Exhibition path

Human zoos, The invention of the savage seeks to lift the veil of anonymity of the women, men and children used as extras, circus freaks, actors and dancers, by telling their many stories that have long since been forgotten.

Based on research started over ten years ago (Pascal Blanchard, Human zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Empire, Liverpool University Press, 2008), this is the first major exhibition to explore the notion of "human zoos" from an international perspective. It draws from a corpus of several thousand documents from over 200 international museums and private collections (including the Prado Museum, the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the British Library, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, the Frankfurt historical museum, the musée du quai Branly and the private collection gathered by the Achac research group) and is the fruit of a trans-disciplinary collaboration with over thirty countries.

In a scenography inspired by the world of theatre, the exhibition historically and thematically approaches the staging of so-called ‘exotics’ or ‘freaks’, as well as the reactions to these popular scientific or avant-garde shows throughout the world. In an audio guide, Lilian Thuram provides his comments to visitors as they walk through the exhibition to view posters, photographs, sculptures and other items, placing them within their specific context.

Act 1 - The discovery of the Other: reporting, collecting, displaying

The first Act features the arrival of exotic peoples in Europe from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and the fact they were considered as ‘strange foreigners’, categorized in four archetypes throughout the exhibition: the savage, the artist, the freak and the exotic ambassador.

Various media reported on the parade of Brazil’s Tupinamba ‘savages’ for the royal entrance of King Henri II in 1550 in Rouen, on the arrival of Siamese ambassadors at the Court of Versailles in 1686, on the 1654 presentation of Inuits to King Frederik II in Copenhagen and on the return of Captain James Cook to England with the Tahitian ‘Noble Savage’ Omai in 1774. The latter inspired a play that was presented in Paris and London for many years…

The exhibition also features a famous portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus painted by Lavinia Fontana (1585), depicting one of the Gonsalvus children, a family of the Canary Islands known in the 16th Century for their legendary hairiness.

Act 2 – Freaks and exotic beings: to observe, classify and categorize

The early 19th century witnesses the development of a new genre: the ethnic show. They first developed in theater cafés before spreading to increasingly larger venues and ultimately featured in exhibitions and circuses.

This process of staging the difference blurs the subtle boundary between that which is deformed and that which is foreign: physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities are first staged and then become the focus of performances.

The first ethnic and freak shows add a new dimension to popular culture by increasingly staging exotic peoples alongside freaks. Saartje Baartman, nicknamed the “Hottentot Venus”, is one such example. She was exhibited in London and Paris in the early 19th century and expresses a new phase of the exhibition process.

The first shows fashion and structure the Western view of the "Other", especially the "Other" from those regions which different European states hoped to conquer or were in the process of colonizing.

The early stages of imperial colonization are concurrent with developing theories on the classification and organization of humanity and on the concept of race. These academic notions would mark the humanities throughout the 19th century.

Act 3 – The spectacle of difference: to recruit, exhibit and diffuse

Between 1870 and WWII, many venues start specializing in ethnic performance such as the Crystal Palace, Barnum and Bailey in Madison Square, the Folies Bergères in Paris and the famous Panoptikum in Berlin. The phenomenon takes on a professional aspct and exotic performance metamorphose into mass entertainment.

Visitors are introduced to “actors of savageness” who become true professionals. These include Aboriginals, ‘lip-plate women’, Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers, oriental belly dancers, the first black clown in France called “Chocolat” and drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec and the legendary Buffalo Bill, whose show is based on the native American Indian archetype - an image which will forever characterise the Far West.

Unbeknownst to them, audiences encounter made-up ‘savages’. Generally paid, the exhibited actively participate in the construction of the imagery.

Act 4 – Staging: to exhibit, measure and produce

Reconstructed ethnic villages, zoos, colonial and international fairs, science and spectacle merge in multiple places. Exotic peoples and physical strangeness are brought together on stage as if they both equally represented the realm of abnormality.

Excess, grandeur and ephemeral reconstructions characterize this section of the exhibition with posters and painted dioramas, film screenings, photographs, automatons and postcards.

The practice starts in public gardens, following the one in Paris which, in 1877, is the first in Europe to exhibit tribes and groups. Such exhibitions lead to the invention of travelling Villages, like that of Carl Hagenbeck. Major tours start in 1874, and in 1878 until the 1930s, international and colonial fairs include an exotic dimension.

While this trend primarily hits Europe, it also reaches America, Japan and the colonies themselves (Australia, India and Indochina), and attracts hundreds of millions of visitors.


The conclusion deals with the end of the exhibitions. The reasons are multiple but the same worldwide and include a fall in public interest, the development of the movie industry and of new forms of imperial propaganda.