Colonization & exhibitions: two parallel phenomena

“I repeat that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races…”

Jules Ferry (1885)

The period after 1815 saw the rise of the British Empire (1814-1914), the French conquest of Algeria (1830), the starting point to an analogous history of colonial grandeur (1830-1931), and to a lesser extent the entry of the Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese, Americans (notably in the Philippines), Germans, and later the Japanese into the colonial fray. This newfound expansionist drive came on the heels of the end of Western slavery with the outlawing of the slave trade in Great Britain in 1807 and its definitive abolition in France in 1848, a time when ethnographic exhibitions started to appear. By the time the great colonial empires were delineating territorial boundaries, the phenomenon of “human zoos” had reached its apex. The two were symbiotically linked as the prominence of human exhibits in the most important colonial exhibitions (from 1883 on) or in the colonial pavilions at the universal exhibitions confirmed.

These exhibitions provided the colonial powers with the opportunity to showcase the richness of colonized lands while staging in an entertaining manner the fundamental principles of “racial hierarchy”, and simultaneously reinvigorating exhibitions at the service of propaganda and justifying colonialism by highlighting the contrast between the “civilized” visitor and the “savage” exhibit, the native and the colonizer. The British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924-1925 and Glasgow in 1938 and the International Colonial Exhibition in Vincennes in 1931 were the most emblematic of these during the interwar years, emulated by exhibitions in Italy (Naples) and Portugal (Porto) in 1940, and in spite of its having lost its empire after the Great War, in Germany as well with the Deutsche Kolonial in Dresden in 1939. It was in this context that reconstituted colonial villages and exhibitions incorporated into the major international exhibitions participated in colonial domination.


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