Remembering the racist history of ‘human zoos’

The graves hold the
remains of six Congolese men and one woman who were exhibited like zoo animals
in a nearby park in Tervuren during the rainy summer of 1897 and who died of
influenza and pneumonia after being forced to spend their days outside. They
were among the 267 men, women and children transported to Tervuren for a
colonial exhibition ordered by the Belgian king, Leopold II.

To commemorate the
125th anniversary of the tragedy that was the Tervuren exhibition, the museum
that King Leopold built in that same park — which recently rebranded as the
Africa Museum — has put on a show titled “Human Zoo: The Age of Colonial
Exhibitions,” running through March 6. It is a meticulously documented survey of
the many exhibitions of human beings that took place worldwide from the early
1800s to the mid-1900s.

Those attractions,
which the museum’s curators estimate were visited by 1.5 billion people
worldwide, ranged from small circus acts and “freak shows” to giant world’s
fairs held in major capitals. They perpetuated theories of white superiority
and racist beliefs that persist to this day.

Spectacles like the
1897 exhibition were often organised by impresarios who took troupes of unpaid
or underpaid people around the world: Congolese people were shown in the United
States, for instance, and Native Americans were shown in Brussels. The
individuals involved were displayed behind fences and barriers, sometimes “half
naked, dressed in animal skins, and performing degrading activities,” said
Maarten Couttenier, one of the three curators of “Human Zoo,” on a recent tour
of the exhibition.

The bigotry behind
the shows lasts to this day, he added. On the morning of the interview, as
Couttenier pointed out, Belgian newspaper De Standaard ran a front-page story
about a recent soccer match during which Vincent Kompany, the Black coach of
one of the teams, was jeered and abused with a racist slur.

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The Africa Museum’s
director general, Guido Gryseels, conceded that his institution had for decades
contributed to promoting racism. He said that the permanent collections were
left untouched from 1956 to the early 21st century, spreading falsehoods about
Africans. He recalled visiting the museum at age 4 or 5 and leaving with a
negative impression of Africa. “I was scared of it,” he said. “I remembered,
particularly, the wild Africans with their spears,” he added. “They were there
to kill me.”

If you give
“successive generations” the impression “that Africans are wild, that they’re
running around naked, that they’re not civilised, you shouldn’t be surprised
that these generations have problems dealing with a multicultural society,”
Gryseels said.

Since taking over in
2001, Gryseels has staged multiple shows critiquing Belgian colonialism,
engaged in restitution talks with African nations and hired staff of African
descent. He said that the “Human Zoo” exhibition was an opportunity to “look at
our past, look it right in the eyes, and come to terms with it, and realise
that we as an institute, as a museum, have contributed to the problems.”

The show opens with a
long wall text listing the dates of major exhibitions of men, women and
children held in places including Dresden, Germany; Lyon, France; Naples,
Italy; and Prague — and farther afield, in Philadelphia; San Francisco; Kyoto,
Japan; and Sydney. Archive photographs offer degrading visions of humans being
put on show. In one, from a “Black village” in 1900s France, a male weaver sits
cross-legged at a loom as a crowd of men in top hats stare at him from behind a

There are many other
photographs in the show, as well as postcards, posters depicting half-naked
figures — sometimes labeled “savages” — and merchandising such as a ceramic
bottle from the 1897 exhibition that depicts a Congolese woman carrying a fruit
basket on her head and a baby in a pouch.

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Belgium was
particularly active in organising degrading human spectacles. King Leopold —
who also ruled over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for much of his
reign, which lasted from 1865 to 1909 — enslaved the Congolese population,
forcing the people there to produce rubber for his personal profit, a process
in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were killed and maimed.

For Leopold,
exhibitions were a propaganda tool to convince Belgians of colonisation’s
benefits and to raise money for his ambitious plans to modernise his kingdom.
Three years before the tragedy in Tervuren, the king put on a “Universal
Exhibition” in the Belgian city of Antwerp and had 144 Congolese people brought
over to populate a display village of 11 huts and a grotto. Photographs show
them posing outside the thatched dwellings in loincloths or animal skins,
holding spears or ceremonial instruments. Seven of them died in Belgium.

scientists, and the theories of racial difference that they developed and
promoted, were among the driving forces behind these human parades, said Pascal
Blanchard, another of the show’s curators, who put on a similar exhibition at
the Quai Branly Museum in Paris in 2011.

The Tervuren
exhibition devotes a section to “scientific” studies, now long discredited,
including color charts illustrating different skin tones, notebooks full of
skull measurements (a perceived gauge of racial difference) and a “craniograph”
used to measure skulls.

Blanchard said it
would have been “inconceivable” in the 1980s to put on an exhibition dealing
with the forced display of human beings, because “people didn’t think it was a
major historical subject.” It took a couple of decades of research to compile
enough documentation to make the shows possible, he added.

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Today, audiences in
the West are eager to understand the roots of racism, Blanchard said. “If you
want to deconstruct racism, and you don’t look at ‘human zoos,’ then you’re not
deconstructing anything,” he added.

The exhibition ends
with two sections connecting the past with the present: a contemporary art
installation by Burundi-born photographer Teddy Mazina, which pictures Africans
measuring Europeans in a kind of role reversal; and a large wall display made
up of sentences representing microaggressions experienced by museum staff
members of African descent — illustrations of everyday racism. “I don’t see
colors,” reads one; “Africa has no civilisation” is another.

Marie-Reine Iyumva,
an Africa Museum employee whose family came to Belgium from Rwanda, helped
compile the quotations. She said that images of humans presented as though they
were animals were at the root of many present-day stereotypes. “As Black women,
we are compared to hyenas, described as being wild in bed,” she said. “There is
a hypersexualisation of our bodies.”

Crude colonialist
imagery and “modern forms of ‘human zoos’” prevail to this day, said Nanette
Snoep, who curated the Quai Branly Museum show with Blanchard and now leads the
Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany. In advertising, movies and
stage performances, people of color are sometimes objectified and represented
as curiosities, she noted.

“This idea of
coloniality is still going on,” and the representations are carry-overs from
colonial times, she said. “People still love exoticism.”

Such perceptions need
to be dispelled, she added. “That’s why the exhibition in Tervuren is


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