How Colonial Powers Presented People in “Human Zoos” | Cultural | Reports on the arts, music and lifestyle of Germany | DW

The 267 women and men of the Belgian colony of Congo were housed somewhere behind the vast park in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren, herded as in a petting zoo.

Brought to Belgium at the request of King Leopold II, they were installed under the thatched-roof huts of a fake “Congo village” to amaze the European public. Up to 40,000 visitors a day came to admire them at the Universal Exhibition of 1897.

Seven Congolese had died at the end of the fair. In their honor, the AfricaMuseum Tervuren – conceived as a colonial museum at the end of the 19th century, and renovated and renamed several times since then – is now organizing a special exhibition, which runs until March 5: “Human Zoos – The Age of Colonial Exhibitions. “

Affirmation of superiority

During the African Conference of Berlin of 1884-1885, 14 European nations divided the continent.

Belgian King Leopold II was granted an area 80 times the size of his country as a private colony – the Congo.

Belgium claimed it was “bringing civilization to the Congo”

His museum “Africa Palace” in Tervuren, with living exhibitions, left no doubt about the European’s claim to superiority: a brass plaque under a portrait of Leopold with two black children said: “Belgium brings civilization in Congo”. In reality, the country’s resources have been ruthlessly exploited, people abused as laborers, or brought to Europe and stared at.

Popular pastime

The human zoo drew huge crowds, said Marteen Couttenier, historian and anthropologist and one of the three curators of the Brussels exhibition. They literally presented the Congolese as cave men, dancing in raffia skirts, full of primitive desires, he told DW, adding that they had never been presented as intellectuals or artists or simply like normal people.

Head photo from (1865 - 1909)

King of the Belgians Leopold II

It wasn’t a regional phenomenon either, says Couttenier. People of all races have been exhibited and shown all over Europe, America, Japan and even Africa, he says. But the mechanism was always the same, he added – visitors would see what was totally strange to them and “feel superior”.

Pseudo science of racial types

During the height of European colonialism, exhibits of Africans, “Redskins”, “Firelanders” or Scandinavian Sami, called “human zoos”, roamed the countryside for popular entertainment. They revolve around a crude “scientific” anthropology.

A 1903 diagram of “racial types” shows that racist fantasies of superiority lowered non-Europeans to the rank of apes; the colonial powers were convinced of their own “civilized superiority”.

An illustration from the temporary exhibition Tervuren Human Zoo: drawings of heads of men from different continents.

Racial classification, presented as “science”

In Germany, Carl Hagenbeck, a Hamburg-based animal trader and zoo founder, made human zoos a business model. The fairground Friedrich Wilhelm Siebold presented the exhibition “Canucks of the South Seas” at the Oktoberfest in Munich until 1931.

The Berlin exhibition also looks back on its human zoos

The first colonial exhibition in Germany was held in 1896. As part of a trade fair in Berlin, the organizers set up a village in a park in the city’s Treptow district, nicknamed it with a derogatory term for blacks.

Lured by false promises, more than 106 Africans from the German colonies were brought to Berlin, where they were forced to present themselves to the astonished public for seven months as villagers in exotic costumes. They were repeatedly subjected to publicly humiliating medical or “racial” examinations.

A woman points to one of the many photos on a wall, a man looks up at the exhibit in the “Looking Back” exhibit.

‘Looking back’ is the first permanent exhibition on colonialism, racism and black resistance in a public museum in Berlin

“Zurückgeschaut” (Looking Back), an updated permanent exhibition at the Treptow Museum which reopened in October 2021, sheds light on this dark chapter and traces the biographies of people who have been reduced to objects.

It also shows how the colonial masters suddenly encountered resistance when living objects left their assigned role.

For example, Kwelle Ndumbe from Cameroon bought an opera magnifying glass and used it to watch the audience.

The same mechanisms today

The concept of racist gaze underlying human zoos still exists today, Couttenier argues. He has darker-skinned colleagues who deal with it every day, such as when looking for an apartment or a job. It’s always the same process, he says: defining an otherness so that you can say: “I’m better than you.”

Children are not born racist, he adds. “We are raising our children to see people as different and inferior.”

This article was originally written in German.

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