Shocking exhibition reveals racist past

The Quai Branly Museum in Paris has a new exhibition: ‘Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage.’ It is a disturbing record of fear, prejudice, and scientific racism.

Caged, undressed, and forced to gnaw on bones: this sounds like no way to treat a human being. But throughout the 19th and the early 20th Century, this was how some people were treated just because of the colour of their skin. They were exhibits in ‘living museums’ and stage shows that flourished across Europe and the USA.

A new exhibition, ‘Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage’, at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris is displaying some 600 artefacts, from the bizarre to the grotesque. These include paintings, sculptures, posters and books as well as skull-measuring devices used to demonstrate the supposed superiority of whites. The function of these shows was twofold: to justify the brutality of colonial rule, and to reinforce ideas of white supremacy.

The exhibition is curated by former French footballer Lilian Thuram, who has become a high-profile anti-racism campaigner. Thuram, who was born on the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, decided to explore the subject after visiting Hamburg Zoo, where the entrance is adorned by sculptures of lions, polar bears and, shockingly, Indians and Africans. The entrance dates from the late 19th Century.

The history of human zoos and freak shows goes back to the Spanish royal court, when Christopher Columbus displayed six ‘Indians’ to an elite European audience in 1492. In 1906, Congolese pygmy Ota Benga was displayed in a cage at the monkey house at New York’s Bronx Zoo, before he was transferred to an orphanage for ‘coloureds’. He later shot himself. William Henry Johnson, an African-American child with an unusually small head, was bought from his parents aged four by circus fraudster Phineas Taylor Barnum and exhibited in a hairy suit. The show was titled ‘What Is It?’ A hirsute woman from Laos, known only as ‘Krao’, was exhibited at the end of the 19th Century as ‘the missing link’ between man and ape, suggesting a struggle for society to come to terms with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Bad old days?

Visitors to the exhibition have been shocked by the racism of the ‘human zoos’ and by the fact that such attitudes were so commonplace only a few generations ago. It seems unthinkable to many that human beings should be exhibited like animals so that people could gawp at the colour of their skin.

But have we come so very far since those bad old days? Much modern television, as some cultural commentators have pointed out, often comes perilously close to supporting the freak-show attitudes of the past. How different are reality shows like Big Brother from the human zoos of yesterday?

You Decide

  1. Is an art exhibition an effective way of helping people understand the past?
  2. Do you think that the younger generations today should have to apologise for their ancestors’ mistakes?


  1. Write a short piece of fiction from the perspective of someone working at a 19th Century freak show. You could be one of the organisers or one of the ‘exhibits’, but pay particular attention to your feelings and motivations.
  2. Do some further research on the life of P.T. Barnum, and write a short biography of the man. What do you think of his exploits? What do they tell you about the times he lived in?

Some People Say...

“There is as much racism today as there has ever been.”

What do you think?

Q & A

You say that people found it difficult to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution?
Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, which coincided with the human zoo’s heyday. Around that time, the idea of evolution was so shocking that it sparked fears that human beings could regress as well as evolve.
They thought that we could evolve backwards?
Yes. This fear of what is called ‘atavism’ was manifested in art and literature from the time like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, which tells of a man who concocts a potion that makes him ‘regress’ into a vicious beast.
What does that have to do with human zoos?
Many Europeans and Americans once believed that people from different ethnic backgrounds were somehow biologically inferior – less evolutionarily advanced. This sort of scientific racism was widespread at the time.

Word Watch

Quai Branly Museum
A museum close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which is dedicated to once-colonised cultures. It opened in 2006, and its development was championed by former French president Jacques Chirac.
Colonial rule
A colony is a territory under the political control of another state, so colonialism is the practice of acquiring, establishing, maintaining and expanding a state’s overseas territories. The British Empire had colonies on almost every continent in the world at some point between the 16th Century and the mid-20th Century.
Phineas Taylor Barnum
A famous American showman, businessman, scam artist and entertainer, who lived from 1810-1891. He founded the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and became notorious for promoting hoaxes, such as a the Fiji mermaid. This was supposed to be a strangely mutated creature that was half monkey, half mermaid, but it was actually the torso and head of a baby monkey sewn to the back half of a fish and covered in paper-mâché.
Hirsutism, or hypertrichosis, is excessive hair growth on the human body. In can be caused by an increased level of androgens (male hormones), or an oversensitivity of hair follicles to androgens.

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