Humans on display ― Paris museum asks why
Published : Nov 29, 2011 - 18:09
Updated : Nov 29, 2011 - 18:09
PARIS (AP) ― It’s a queasy experience, viewing chained tribal dancers do a white man’s bidding, or African women stripped and photographed to feed European curiosity.

Until just a few generations ago, this is how most white people learned about those with skin of a different shade. A new Paris exhibit examines how for centuries, colonizers plucked villagers from Africa, the Americas or the South Pacific and put them on display half a world away. The demeaning tradition shaped racist attitudes that linger today.

Curator Lilian Thuram, a former soccer star and now anti-racism advocate, hopes the exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris makes people question deep-held beliefs about the “other.’’

“You have to have the courage to say that each of us has prejudices, and these prejudices have a history,’’ he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Thuram is an ideal public face for this unusual exhibit. A pensive black man with a ready smile, he has suffered racist insults on and off the field.

It’s a delicate undertaking for a museum: exhibiting offensive images without glorifying them, urging visitors to look closer and be repulsed.

Scientific curator Nanette Jacomijn Snoep said the exhibit isn’t about blaming viewers of the past for their curiosity.

“For the visitors of this era, it was a way ... to see what was happening elsewhere in the world. Except that visitors weren’t totally aware that was a spectacle, that it was a fabricated difference,’’ fabricated to make the viewer feel superior, she said in an interview.

Many of the subjects of this colonial cruelty remain nameless, and forgotten to history. “Zulu Mealtime’’ one photo reads. “Bushmen.’’ “Indian Chief.’’ “Negro Head.’’ An old film reel shows a Frenchman peppering commands at two dark-skinned dancers in headdress so cumbersome their faces are barely visible.

But some have been identified, including the great-grandparents of Thuram’s 1998 World cup teammate Christian Karembeu, shipped to Paris from the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia and exhibited as “cannibals.’’

The Quai Branly exhibit includes a projected silhouette of South African Saartje Baartman, known to 19th-century viewers as the Hottentot Venus, and a naked, backside-only photograph of another African woman with similarly generous buttocks.

Just when you think the exhibit is all about the past, a familiar venue jumps out: New York’s Coney Island features in an old “freak show’’ poster. Zulus were put on display at Buckingham Palace. Paris’ Jardin d’Acclimatation, today one of the French capital’s most popular amusement parks, once hosted human “zoos.’’

Such displays bolstered 19th-century scientists who sought to prove that different races were biologically distinct ― and whites biologically superior.

“There is only one species of homo sapiens,’’ Thuram said, standing defiantly in front of a metallic contraption once used to measure skulls. It resembles a torture device or mutant sextant, and is accompanied by sculpted busts meant to illustrate racial distinctions.

“This ‘scientific racism’ was introduced to the population. Visitors of the time could come to the Jardin d’Acclimatation and see people from Asia, Africa, Oceania behind an enclosure, and they were presented as savages,’’ Thuram said. “You can see that there is a history, and unfortunately today we have the consequences of this history.’’