Heritage and memory: from the Elephant man in 1980 to the return of the fuegians in 2010

“In the United States and Europe as well, the police track down stereotypes, victims of racial profiling. Every non-white suspect serves to confirm the rule, inscribed as it is with invisible ink deep in the recesses of collective consciousness: crime is either black, or brown, or at the very least yellow.”

Eduardo Galeano (2005)

What are the vestiges today of human exhibitions? In spite of the sheer scale of the phenomenon in terms of attendance rates and the millions of images produced, the subject itself had not received the critical attention it deserves. The work undertaken by various artists and the restitution of the remains of exhibits have made it possible to rediscover some of these stories. Thanks to the initiative of historians, novelists (such as Didier Daeninckx’s Cannibalesor Rachel Holmes’ The Hottentot Venus. The life and death of Saartjie Baartman), documentary films (Boma Tervuren,On l’appelait la Vénus hottentote,Calafate zoológicos humanos,The Return of Sara Baartman or Zoos Humains), full-length feature films (Vénus Noire by Abdellatif Kechiche in France, Man to Man by Régis Wargnier in Great Britain or Elephant Man by David Lynch in the United States), the subject is better known today. The most recent development was the exhibition Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris in 2011-2012, visited by more than forty-five thousand people a month.

The study of “human zoos” helps us improve our understanding of the ways in which “scientific racism” gradually transformed itself into a “popular racism” during the nineteenth century, while also explaining the origins of contemporary stereotypes. Today, artists have taken possession of this past and made it possible for us to deconstruct its legacy. The performances of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña come to mind, who famously displayed themselves in The Couple in the Cageas “Amerindians” as an artistic parody in 1992, of for that matter the work of Kara Walter that has explored stereotypes about the black body. Similarly, French artist Orlan drew inspiration from George Catlin’s portraits of Native Americans for a series of photographic portraits she completed in 2005. And finally, a series of “happenings”, notably in zoos, have served to denounce the long history of exhibitions and their contemporary incarnations, as for example with the Bamboula Village in 1994, where the Saint-Michel biscuit company worked with the management of a wildlife park in Port- Saint-Père near the city of Nantes to reconstitute an “authentic African village”, the “African village” at Augsburg Zoo in Germany in 2005, or the Baka Pygmies exhibited in the Rainforest natural park in Yvoir (Belgium) in 2002.


The restitution of the remains of exhibits and appeasing the past

For over a decade now, the bodies or human remains of persons exhibited have been restituted, making it possible to talk about the foundation of shared histories and memories. The quest for these bodies – at various exhibition sites (the Congolese who were exhibited and died in Tervuren in 1897 or in Switzerland from where Fuegians were returned to Chile in 2010), in Western museums (the “Hottentot Venus” returned to South Africa in 2002 or the taxidermied body of the “Negro of Banyoles” returned to Botswana in 2000) – constitute an archeology of memory from which we can begin to trace a longer history without heroes.



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