New kinds of exhibitions in the early nineteenth century

“Today [thanks to these exhibitions], we no longer need to brave the high seas or contend with the dangers over land in order to learn about the variety of human races.”

Illustrated Magazine of Art (1853)

During a forty year period that stretched from 1800 to 1840, in both the United States (New York) and in Europe (Paris and London), exhibitions underwent significant transformations, evolving from curiosities reserved for a societal elite toward a popular form of entertainment. “Exotic” exhibitions in Paris and London of Hottentots between 1810 and 1820, of Indians in 1817, Laplanders in 1822 or Eskimos in 1824 point to the scale of the phenomenon. European curiosity for the exotic became more varied, and in 1827 spectators were able to gaze admiringly upon Zarafa, the giraffe given to Charles X by the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt. The same year, four warriors and two female Osage Indians came to Paris and were welcomed by Charles X, only to die shortly thereafterwhile in Europe. However, it was Saartjie Baartman, the famous Hottentot Venus, that was to have the most lasting impact on this transitional period. After having been exhibited in London and Paris (1810-1815) where she attracted vast audiences eager to observe her “anomalies” (known as steatopygia- enlarged buttocks and thighs, as well as elongated labia), her body became an object of scientific study. London was at the time the European capital of “human zoos”, hosting exhibits of Fuegians in 1829, Guyanese in 1839, and Bushmen in 1847 on the eve of the inaugural Universal Exhibition of 1851. These events coincided with the American painter George Catlin’s attempts at popularizing the figure of the Native American throughout Europe. In the United States, Indian “shows” and “freak” shows (that featured “monsters”) proliferated, before spreading to Europe. This was also the era when the famous showman Phineas Taylor Barnum began his long career with the African-American slave Joice Heth (whom he exhibited), before setting up his American Museum in New York city in which Siamese twins, bearded ladies, “skeleton man”, and other “exotic savages” from around the world were displayed over the years. From what had initially been restricted to a handful of exhibited individuals, one witnessed the emergence in less than a generation of a popular and lucrative industry with its organized troupes, choreographed and staged productions, elaborate costumes, impresarios, contracts, recruitment agents…


The Hottentot Venus (1815)

In March 1815, Saartjie Baartman was “invited” by the Director of the Museum of Natural History, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, to take part in scientific observations. It was on this occasion that her impresario was issued a certificate attesting that Saartjie Baartman was a genuine “savage”. Upon her death, the anatomist Georges Cuvier dissected her, made a full body cast, removed her skeleton, and preserved her brain and genitals in formaldehyde. This body cast was on display at the Museum of Mankind in Paris until 1976 when it was removed from public view. In 2002, her remains were repatriated from France to South Africa where she was reburied following a state funeral.


George Catlin

In 1828, the American painter George Catlin, began his ambitious project of preserving the traces of Native American culture. He traveled extensively and collected American Indian artifacts, producing some five hundred paintings, of which three hundred were portraits. His Indian Gallery traveled throughout the United States and Europe between 1845 and 1848.


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