Republic of Human Zoos

“In order to create human zoos in the late 19th century, it was necessary to have made people accept that humanity was divided between humans and those close to animals …”, Maboula Soumahoro, historian

In 1889 in Paris, nearly 30 million visitors flocked to the World’s Fair. The main attraction, besides the Eiffel Tower, is a Negro village. Africans are being called upon to play the savages, on the other side of a barrier to protect the visitor from the violence of the colonized. To also remind him that he, the white man, is on the right side of the fence, of civilization and modernity.

Historian Carole Reynaud-Paligot recalls: “Race and racism are not the same. The 19th century is the century of the race, because this notion arises gradually and becomes a real scientific notion, carried by a science called anthropology. This science was institutionalized in the second half of the 19th century for the purpose of determining and classifying human races. It will produce a very strong hierarchy as it places the white race at the top of the hierarchy.”.

We are then in the era of so-called human zoos, visited by more than a billion people from Hamburg to Chicago and from Brussels to Tokyo. These performances will elevate the colonial exhibition to the rank of spectacle, under the pretext of entertaining. And thus justify the colonization carried out by the Third Republic …

Human zoos, which, as historian Pascal Blanchard explains, do not come from nothing: “Christopher Columbus, back from America, not only brings back items. It not only brings back wild animals, it not only brings back biotopes, it also brings people back. To show the European courts, and in particular the Spanish and Portuguese, that there are other peoples on the other side of the country. But at the time, it remained in aristocratic circles, with no notion of a commercial relationship to the exhibition, it was not yet a performance tour for the general public structured as such.

These zoos will popularize, in the same way as e.g. textbooks, research and discourses of European anthropologists who, in the continuity of the Enlightenment, undertook to dissect the Other.

Pascale Blanchard recounts how closed to the public in the morning, they were still open to scientists who rushed to study these little-known populations: “You have certain scholars who stayed fourteen days, three weeks, a month in the big cities on tour, in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium to come and study these populations. If you read ‘La Nature’ ‘, the great scientific journal of the day or the’ Bulletin de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris’, almost all the troops exhibited at the Jardin d’acclimatation in Paris were the subject of studies on seven, eight, ten pages, in addition to complete collections. And when you read Gustave Le Bon, you understand that he constructed his racialization of the world solely with the copies he saw at the Jardin d’acclimatation.. “

Moreover, for the historian Zana Etambala, one of the reasons for the existence of these zoos was that “show the contrast between these peoples and European societies“, Thus he analyzes:”In the last quarter of the 19th century, European societies were undergoing change and modernization. Europe and the West were proud of the progress made over the last few decades. So we wanted to show the others who at that time did not make all the progress whose societies were still somehow archaic.“, he concludes:”The aim was to give European visitors the impression that their society was developing in the right direction and that their society at that time was superior to all these African, American, Asian, etc. societies.”.

With human zoos, the existence of races – inferior and superior – is spreading to penetrate deep into the social body. A racial order that, despite the deconstruction of the concept of race performed by genetics in the 20th century, continues to flourish in our society …

A documentary by Stephane Bonnefoi realized by Diphy Mariani for LSD.

With :

Maboula Soumahoro (historian),

Pascal Blanchard (historian),

Zana Etambala (historian),

Maarten Couttenier (curator of the African Museum in Tervuren, Belgium),

Carole Reynaud-Paligot (historian),

Magali Besson (philosopher),

Aurelia Michel (historian).


* Carole Reynaud-Paligot, The racial republicPUF

* Pascal Blanchard, Human zoos and colonial exhibitsDiscovery

* Collective, Human zoo, the invention of natureActes Sud / Quai Branly Museum

* Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and historyFolio

* Maboula Soumahoro, The triangle and the hexagonDiscovery

* Jean-Claude Charles, The black bodyInk memory

* Etienne Balibar, race, nation, classDiscovery

* Dominique Chathuant, We who do not cultivate racial prejudiceEditions du Félin


* The site of the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium

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