On 1 April (2014), Rosie Spooner led a fascinating discussion on international exhibitions in London, Glasgow and Canada, including postcards from her personal, family archive. Apart from discussion on theory, material culture and the relationship between metropole and periphery we also discussed the ways in which people were often used as exhibits in themselves at imperial exhibitions. Invariably these were African men and women who were brought over to recreate village scenes. Although in Glasgow they also had Highland village scenes with real people used as exhibits.
This idea of the ‘human zoo’ has been in the news this week. In 1914, Norway hosted such an exhibition which had a Congolese village with Africans dressed in ‘traditional dress’ as exhibits.
To quote from The Independent, 20 April 2014:
The original exhibition, called The Congolese Village, was staged in Frogner Park, Oslo, and opened by the King of Norway. It ran for five months and, as well as a roller coaster and pantomime theatre, showed 80 African men, women and children living in palm-roof cabins, surrounded by indigenous artefacts and going about their daily routine of cooking, eating and making handicrafts.
It was the idea of a London-based Hungarian-born impresario named Benno Singer, and was marketed as a carnival freakshow. It tapped into an enthusiasm in other parts of Europe for human zoos, which were supposed to show off the civilising effect of colonialism. Huge crowds gathered to see a similar exhibition in Belgium, despite some of the 267 Congolese villagers dying during the show’s run and being unceremoniously buried in a common grave.
And now artists in Oslo are planning to recreate this exhibition next month. Despite planning to use this as a way to confront the racism of Norway’s past, some anti-racist groups are horrified by the idea as are some neo-Nazi groups. It will open on 15 May and run for four months, all going well.
As the Huffington Post, 18 April 2014, explains:
Mohamed Ali Fadlabi, of Sudan, and Lars Cuzner, of Sweden and Canada, are calling their project “European Attraction Limited,” an attempt to challenge notions of postmodern racism and the treatment of minorities today through historical reenactment.
Would this work in Glasgow? Would a re-enactment of the Sri Lankan waiters and Indian potters at the 1888 Kelvingrove Exhibition, or the aforementioned Highland villages, meet with approval, concern or apathy?