In 1906 a Congolese Mbuti pygmy named Ota Benga was caged and put on display at the monkey house in New York's Bronx zoo to demonstrate "human evolution." In the 1840s, a boy with a small skull was sold to P.T. Barnum. There, he would be called Zip and made to wear a fur suit and scream at the audience in a show called "What Is It?"
The Quai Branly Museum is tracing the lives of up to 35,000 people who were labeled freaks or savages and put on display, in the exhibition Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage.
A vast collection of paintings, ads, sculptures, movies, postcards, costumes, dioramas, miniatures to posters advertising Australian Cannibals are now part of the Quai Branly Museum Human Zoo exhibit. All these various forms of human exploitation from the 1800s to 1958 are on display, in hopes of exploring the line between science and voyeurism. And the results are pretty shocking.
Curated by Lilian Thuram (of European football fame) the exhibit takes you through the 15th to 18th century and the birth of the "noble savage" archetype. Which also features the infamous portrait of Antoietta Gonsalvus from the Canary Islands by Lavinia Fontana (pictured above). The exhibit moves on into the 19th Century through World War II, introducing actors portraying savages, and examining lucrative industry that built around these "performers."
The curator himself has indeed been touched by exploitation for entertainment as well. According to The Guardian:
The great-grandparents of Thuram's World Cup team-mate Christian Karembeu came to Paris from New Caledonia. They considered themselves ambassadors but were displayed in a cage at the Jardin d'Acclimation in Paris. They were later shown in Germany, along with about 100 other New Caledonian Kanaks and described as "cannibals."
Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage will run until June 3rd, 2011.
Ota Benga who committed suicide in 1916, after he learned he wasn't going to be repatriated as promised.
William Henry Johnson (or Zip to fans) was dubbed the "Dean of Freaks."