Remembering the Racist History of “Human Zoos”

TERVUREN, Belgium – The Roman Catholic church in the center of Tervuren, a Brussels suburb, is not a tourist spot. It is a heavily restored building with stained glass windows without exception and a small bell tower. Yet just outside its walls are seven stone tombs of historical significance to Belgium as it struggles to face the horrors of its colonial past.

The graves contain the remains of six Congolese men and a woman who were exhibited as zoo animals in a park near Tervuren during the rainy summer of 1897 and who died of flu and pneumonia after been forced to spend their days outdoors. They were among the 267 men, women and children transported to Tervuren for a colonial exhibition commissioned by Belgian King Leopold II.

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the tragedy of the Tervuren exhibition, the museum that King Leopold built in this same park – which was recently renamed the Africa Museum – organized an exhibition entitled “Human Zoo : The Age of Colonial Exhibitions “, which runs until March 6. This is a meticulously documented study of the many exhibits of humans that took place around the world from the early 1800s to the mid 1900s.

These attractions, which museum curators estimate have been visited by 1.5 billion people worldwide, ranged from small circus acts and “freak shows” to giant world fairs held in major capitals. They perpetuated the theories of white superiority and racist beliefs that persist to this day.

Shows like the 1897 exhibition were often put on by impresarios who took troops of unpaid or underpaid people around the world: Congolese were shown in the United States, for example, and Native Americans were shown in Brussels. . The individuals involved were displayed behind fences and barriers, sometimes “half-naked, dressed in animal skins, and engaged in degrading activities”, explained Maarten Couttenier, one of the three curators of “Human Zoo”, during a recent tour of the exhibition.

The sectarianism behind the shows continues to this day, he added. On the morning of the interview, as Couttenier pointed out, the Belgian newspaper De Standaard carried an article on the front page of a recent football match in which Vincent Kompany, the black coach of one of the teams, spoke about been taunted and assaulted with a racist insult. .

The Director-General of the Africa Museum, Guido Gryseels, admitted that his institution had helped promote racism for decades. He said the permanent collections remained intact from 1956 to the start of the 21st century, spreading lies about Africans. He remembers visiting the museum when he was four or five years old and coming away with a negative impression of Africa. “I was afraid of it,” he said. “I remembered, in particular, the wild Africans with their spears,” he added. “They were there to kill me.

If you give ‘successive generations’ the impression ‘that Africans are wild, that they run naked, that they are not civilized, you shouldn’t be surprised that these generations have problems with a multicultural society,’ Gryseels said. .

Since taking office in 2001, Gryseels has organized several shows criticizing Belgian colonialism, engaged in restitution talks with African nations and hired staff of African descent. He said that the “Human Zoo” exhibit was an opportunity to “look at our past, to look it straight in the eye, to accept it and to realize that we, as an institute, as a museum, contributed to the problems. “

The exhibition opens with a long wall text listing the dates of major men’s, women’s and children’s exhibitions held in places such as Dresden, Germany; Lyon, France ; Naples, Italy; and Prague – and further afield, in Philadelphia; San Francisco; Kyoto, Japan; and Sydney, Australia. Archival photographs offer degrading visions of exposed humans. In one, from a ‘black village’ in 1900s France, a weaver sits cross-legged in front of a loom as a crowd of men in top hats watch him from behind a barrier .

There are many other photographs in the exhibit, as well as postcards, posters depicting half-naked figures – sometimes labeled “wild” – and derivative products such as a ceramic bottle from the exhibit. 1897 which represents a Congolese woman carrying a fruit basket on her head and a baby in a pouch.

Belgium has been particularly active in the organization of degrading human spectacles. King Leopold – who also ruled what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo for much of his reign, which lasted from 1865 to 1909 – reduced the Congolese population to slavery, forcing locals to produce rubber for for personal gain, a process in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have been killed and maimed.

For Leopold, the exhibitions were a propaganda tool to persuade the Belgians of the benefits of colonization and to raise funds for his ambitious plans to modernize his kingdom. Three years before the Tervuren tragedy, the king organized a “universal exhibition” in the Belgian city of Antwerp and brought in 144 Congolese to populate an exhibition village of 11 huts and a cave. Photographs show them posing in front of thatched-roof dwellings, dressed in loincloths or animal skins, holding spears or ceremonial instruments. Seven of them died in Belgium.

Nineteenth-century scientists and the theories of racial difference they developed and promoted were among the driving forces behind these human parades, said Pascal Blanchard, another of the exhibit’s curators, who hosted a similar exhibit. at the Quai Branly museum in Paris. in 2011.

The Tervuren exhibition devotes a section to “scientific” studies, now long discredited, including color charts illustrating different skin tones, notebooks filled with cranial measurements (a perceived indicator of racial difference) and a “craniograph” used to measure skulls .

Blanchard said it would have been “inconceivable” in the 1980s to put on an exhibition dealing with the forced exhibition of human beings, because “people didn’t think it was a major historical subject.” . It took a few decades of research to compile enough documentation to make the shows possible, he added.

Today, Western audiences are eager to understand the roots of racism, Blanchard said. “If you want to deconstruct racism and you don’t look at ‘human zoos’ then you don’t deconstruct anything,” he added.

The exhibition ends with two sections linking the past to the present: a contemporary art installation by Burundian photographer Teddy Mazina, which shows Africans measuring Europeans in a sort of role reversal; and a large wall exhibit of phrases depicting micro-attacks experienced by members of the museum’s African staff – illustrations of everyday racism. “I don’t see any colors,” we read; “Africa has no civilization” is another.

Credit…via Royal Museum for Central Africa

Marie-Reine Iyumva, an Africa Museum employee whose family came from Rwanda to Belgium, helped compile the quotes. She said that images of humans presented as if they were animals were the source of many current stereotypes. “As black women we are compared to hyenas, described as wild in bed,” she said. “There is a hypersexualization of our bodies.

Raw colonialist imagery and “modern forms of ‘human zoos'” prevail to this day, said Nanette Snoep, who curated the quai Branly museum exhibit with Blanchard and now runs the Rautenstrauch-Joest museum in Cologne, in Germany. In advertising, films and theatrical performances, people of color are sometimes objectified and portrayed as curiosities, she noted.

“This idea of ​​coloniality is still relevant today,” and the depictions are vestiges of the colonial era, she said. “People still love the exotic.”

Such perceptions must be dispelled, she added. “This is why the exhibition in Tervuren is important.