ToPHSS Lecture: Between Science and Show: Human Zoos in the 19th and 20th Centuries
In this presentation we consider historically specific ways and sites of knowing such as world’s fairs, zoos, circuses and freak shows, which fundamentally structured how visitors made sense of humanness and civilization. These diverse types of exhibit were at the intersection of scientific authority and popular hunger for exoticism, and require an interdisciplinary theoretical approach combining critical race, postcolonial and gender studies. Our focus is on the human zoo, which we present from three analytical perspectives: the idea of progress, the management of space, and the blurred boundary between human and nonhuman. We bring case studies to show how human zoos, often advertised as “native villages,” created “authentic” contexts through gender- and dress-codes played on themes of nudity and wildness. It provided an opportunity for visitors to immerse in ethnographic study in the metropolis, to witness exotic Others, and gave the impression of an unmediated value-free scientific learning. Nevertheless, human zoos shared entertainment value with sideshow attractions, freaks shows, circuses, and other popular forms of display considered vulgar for middle-class tastes. We will introduce the intermingling of science and entertainment in human exhibitions, which lead to questions of how animalization and dehumanization structured ideas of race, gender and class in various forms of exhibiting humans.