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“Human Zoos, the Invention of the Savage” questions today’s ethics in tourism

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PARIS, France (eTN) – Posters of laughing and dancing Black people display their vivid colors in the special exhibition room of the Museum Quai Branly, Paris’ latest cultural institution dedicated e

PARIS, France (eTN) – Posters of laughing and dancing Black people display their vivid colors in the special exhibition room of the Museum Quai Branly, Paris’ latest cultural institution dedicated exclusively to all cultures outside Europe. However, they do not advertise to visit some exotic countries and learn about local cultures. This is quite the contrary. These pictures are part of a fascinating exhibition about human zoos, a creation of the Western world.

“Human Zoos, the Invention of the Savage” tracks back the genesis of exhibiting the “Other,” the “Exotic” one. From a strictly etymologic analysis, the term “exotic” meant “foreign or alien” in Latin language. With discoveries of new continents in the XV century, mankind became fascinated with differences, both generating interest and disgust. From physically disabled people such as bearded women or dwarfs, folk’s curiosity rapidly shifted to other races. With an underlying message: the Western world was far superior – both physically and intellectually – to the “Other,” “Elsewhere.” Large exhibitions, as well as performance shows, to satisfy popular curiosity took place from the finishing XVIII century to the middle of the 1950s. They mixed human deformity with “exotic” races such as Zulus, Pygmies, or Annamites.

According to the Quai Branly exhibition, it estimated that the phenomenon of the exotic performance industry captivated over a billion spectators between 1800 and 1958. They then marveled at more than 35,000 individuals throughout the world, which were exhibited like animals. Circus, itinerant exhibitions became current all over the XIX and early years of the XX centuries, reinforcing the false character of racial superiority. World exhibitions in the XX century also helped to stage the magnificence of colonial empires or the civilization role played by emerging powers. Amerindians exhibited in circuses in the USA is a poignant testimony of an almost gone culture.

The exhibition is extremely well documented, showing no fewer than 500 objects, sculptures, pictures, movies, or posters. They are all a posthumous tribute to those courageous – and mostly anonymous – foreigners who were for many years exhibited and denied any humanity consideration. It was, for example, reported that many Asians and Africans died of colds during the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1934 as they had to perform in their traditional costume, made for a more tropical climate.

Looking at all these images made visitors feel uncomfortable. But has it changed that much today, in times of massive tourism, which can unfortunately be linked to low quality? Of course, world exhibitions today do not exhibit “ethnic villages” anymore, as in the past. But what about tourists gathering to see some people dressed “ethnically” to perform some kind of dance or to exhibit their handicraft, each time a tourist bus stops in the vicinity of a village? There are in Asia or in Africa still many “tourist attractions” where people are dragged out of their normal life to dress in additional attire to perform some kinds of shows. They then play in front of travelers who do a quick tour of villages for a few pictures and souvenirs. They will then leave a couple of notes in local currency before disappearing onto their bus, as quickly as they appeared.

Of course, morbid curiosity of the past has been replaced by what seems to be a natural curiosity in front of an exotic character. But what about the morality of such tours? How is it possible today that some travel agencies, tour operators, or even countries continue to promote such circuits, exhibiting their inhabitants like animals in a zoo? Responsible tourism can counteract to this phenomenon, but the answer is to be found within visitors. By refusing to participate to such tourism masquerades, travelers would then bring back some dignity to the people they visit and also for themselves. Quai Branly exhibition is not only a must-see for anyone in Paris these days, it is also a wake-up call to our way to make tourism for responsible.

“Human Zoos, the Invention of the Savage” can be seen at Musée du Quai Branly until June 3, 2012. www.quaibranly.fr