In eighteen hundred and ninety-seven, there will soon be 125 years, the Universal Exhibition of Brussels offered, in its opulent suburb of Tervuren, a human zoo where 267 Congolese, men, women and children, were exhibited in a junk village. like semi-wild beasts.
Hundreds of thousands of onlookers, sure of their racial, progressive and civilizational superiority, then came to entertain themselves with this trafficking in human flesh made to ridicule peoples deemed inferior, backward and cannibals.
The international exhibition served to stimulate the interest of the population of the Belgian metropolis for the overseas territories, including the Congo, the personal property of King Leopold II, operated as a huge labor camp. The Colonial Palace, exhibiting beings and things from the fringes of the empire, was also built with the enormous profits from the exploitation of rubber.
An admirable tram line also dating from the 1897 expo still joins the enchanting site by crossing a pretty urban forest and the embassy district.
The palace was then transferred to the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo (1910), then to the Museum of Central Africa (1952) and, recently, to AfricaMuseum (2018).
The exhibition, which opened in November, entitled Human zoos. At the time of colonial exhibitions, documents the phenomenon of anthropozoological exploitations while questioning and criticizing this institutional past. The AfricaMuseum thus practices museological self-criticism.
“During the ninety-seven exhibition, there were three Congolese villages installed in the park of the Palace, explains the historian and anthropologist Maarten Couttenier, attached to the History and Politics department of the AfricaMuseum, co-commissioner of Human zoos. He himself is all the better acquainted with these racist roots of the establishment as he devoted his doctoral thesis to the history of Belgian anthropology, which is partly concentrated in his museum.
“Seven Congolese died during the Universal Exhibition,” he continues, launching the visit organized for The duty. It is therefore important to exhibit this work on human zoos here, at the crime scene… ”
During the ninety-seven expo, there were three Congolese villages settled in the park
From the palace. Seven Congolese died during the Universal Exhibition.
Museums, which have long served as a guarantee for the hegemonic power of the West, make it possible to understand and explain the diversity as well as the complexity of this shameful practice. Mr. Couttenier organized an exhibition on the same theme in 2009 in a museum in Ghent, Belgium. The co-commissioner of Human Zoos, Mathieu Zana Etambala, also from the AfricaMuseum, has been working on the subject for decades. The third person in charge, Pascal Blanchard, directed a first version presented ten years ago at the Musée du quai Branly, in Paris, then on tour in Europe since, each time with additions and adaptations.
The names of places that have organized human zoos occupy a complete wall at the entrance to the AfricaMuseum. In total, dozens and dozens of cities in Europe and the United States have attracted at least 1.5 billion visitors who have come to see and demean thousands of people exposed like beasts. Aborigines, Pygmies, Redskins and many others served as an attraction in Paris (1889), Chicago (1893), Lyon (1894), Geneva (1896), Berlin (1899) and even Osaka ( 1903). Unless I’m mistaken, no Canadian city is listed, but Canadian Inuit were exhibited in Europe in the 19th century.e century.
At that time – roughly for a century, the first Belgian exhibition dating back to 1885, the last to 1958 – we spoke of “indigenous villages” or “colonial ethnography exhibitions”. The expression “human zoo” was born at the beginning of the XXIe century in learned circles. It reinforces and concentrates in criticism the central idea of this device made to animate the other, dehumanize the colonized and of course exploit it as better as possible.
Slavery and Rembrandt
Racist and dehumanizing logic has justified the slave trade for centuries. Museums have been making efforts in recent years to take on this dark side of Western societies, but also within their establishments and their collections. Research has recently unearthed links between slavery and Hans Sloane, whose accumulated treasures served as a basis for the British Museum.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is also doing it. Institution sues online his exhibition on slavery from works and objects, but also stories of the lives of slaves, slave owners or people who profited from the triangular trade. Notes shed light on the relationship to slavery in some 80 works in the permanent collection, some major ones.
One of the stories recalls the terrible fate of Wally, slave of the Palmeneribo plantation, in Suriname, burned alive for having participated in a revolt in 1707. The life and death of this black Spartacus are told by Remy Bonjasky, world champion of Dutch kickboxing of Surinamese origin.
Another online presentation recalls the enrichment through the slave trade from portraits of Oopjen Coppit and her husband Maerten Soolmans. The diptych was painted by Rembrandt on the occasion of their wedding in 1634 and acquired a few years ago. The capsule tells that Mme Coppit owned the largest sugar refinery in Amsterdam.
The raw material came from the sugar and slave lands of the New World. We also learn that Maerten Daey, Oopjen Coppit’s second husband, raped a slave named Francisca during her military service in Brazil. “We are interested in ways of telling the story of the Netherlands,” said in an interview to the Duty Valika Smeulders, Head of the History Department at the Rijksmuseum. The colonial narrative has not gotten much attention in the past in our museum and we are attempting to correct this shortcoming. “
The heart of the collection of the museum mastodon dates from the 17th centurye century, the golden age of Dutch painting. These years have ensured the prosperity of the United Provinces through the trade in spices, sugar, tobacco, but also human beings.
It is estimated that the Dutch enslaved 600,000 exploited Africans in seven colonies in the Caribbean, Brazil, Asia and South Africa.
The country’s museums have started to take an interest in this “ dark side of the Golden Age »At the start of the millennium to celebrate the 150e anniversary of the abolition of triangular trade. At the beginning of 2022, the Tropenmuseum will inaugurate a large permanent exhibition called The inheritance (Inheritance) on this colonial and slavery past. The Rijksmuseum will launch an exhibition on Indonesian colonization in February.
Mme Smeulders adds that this decolonization of the gaze complements other corrections (feminists, environmentalists, etc.) wanting to broaden the perspective so far concentrated on a few happy few, basically, mostly white males.
Museum change also involves the diversity of museologists. For the Slavery Expo, the Amsterdam Museum worked with a mixed team from inside and outside the facility to enrich perspectives on the terrible subject. A documentary directed by Ida Does on this experience captured the design process.
Centuries of conquest and degradation
The news has made things happen. There is obviously Black Lives Matter in this effort. And wokism too?
“In the Netherlands, the word ‘woke’ is not often used, answers the head of the Department of History. On the other hand, the Black Lives Matter movement has become international and it is important in the Netherlands too. Many museums are therefore looking for ways to connect with a larger and diverse audience by presenting different perspectives on the world and on world history. “
The colonial imagination reifying the conquered peoples is based on centuries of conquest and degradation. The introduction to the exhibition on human zoos recalls the precursor case of Saartjie Baartman (1788-1815), a Khoisan woman exhibited in Europe as a specimen of a deformed and exotic “lower race”.
The sexualization of colonial women, depicted and exhibited naked, then continued for decades as the West reigned strict Puritanism.
“We were showing dwarves and giants at the time,” recalls museologist Maarten Couttenier. The public came to see the spectacle of abnormal people. But on one side there were the freak shows, and on the other, the ethnic shows. These showed so-called primitive races, armed, savages, cannibals, everything that we, the white bourgeois, Christians, men, civilized are not. The other then became a negative mirror. “
The notion of race (in fact racialization) serves as an ideological link to these practices. The hierarchy of humanity has occupied entire university faculties and filled libraries. The exhibition reveals the relationship between this cutting-edge research by academic elites and the dissemination of racist theses by the vulgate of human zoos, in an almost symbiotic relationship between the scientist and the popular.
We showed dwarves and giants at the time. The public came to see the spectacle of abnormal people. But on one side there were the freak shows, and on the other, the ethnic shows.
Hence these showcases where we see the doctors in lab coats measuring the skulls of the colonized, classifying the color of their skin, exactly as the Nazi scientists will do with the European populations in an attempt to scientificize their sordid and murderous theoretical rants.
The wealth of some 500 documents and artefacts from public and private collections deployed at the AfricaMuseum in Brussels to dissect this weltanschauung alienating arouses so much dread and astonishment. The work makes it possible to display an implacable discriminatory propaganda machine relayed by a multitude of media: posters, books, photography, cinema, engraving or sculpture.
The selection of busts by the artist Arsène Matton (1911) is particularly impressive. As the criticism of zoos spread, this artist was ordered to travel to the Congo to make casts of “living Congolese”, in very painful conditions, supposedly to show the diversity of races in the colony. The busts were on display at the Belgian Congo Museum until the 1950s.
“Matton was a professor at the academy in Brussels,” explains Couttenier. On his return, students left his class to protest against his work. “It just goes to show that human zoos may attract large numbers of people, but from the start, from” ninety-seven “and after, this racist practice aroused critical reactions that are now at the heart of museum initiatives …
This report was partly funded with support from the Transat International Journalism Fund –The duty.