“Human zoos” were vectors of racism, according to a Belgian exhibition

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Tervuren (Belgium) (AFP) – In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recreated African villages were established across Europe as amusement parks that served to extol the supposed cultural superiority of the colonizing empires.

They have also been powerful vectors of racist stereotypes, as an ongoing Belgian museum exhibition illustrates.

“Human Zoo: The age of colonial exhibitions” at the Africa Museum outside Brussels until March of next year has an echo, as its buildings are located on the site where the King of Belgium Leopold II rebuilt in 1897 three “Congolese villages” on royal land.

At the time, the Belgian Congo – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – was the private property of Leopold and 267 men and women were forcibly removed there to be exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Brussels, forced to sit in front of it. the dwellings. Seven of them died of cold or illness.

This episode is featured in the museum’s exhibit, which features 500 objects and documents showing what indigenous peoples suffered under various colonial powers.

The old ethnographic displays were designed to “show the other as primitive” and to “make the” savage “” to “strengthen the superiority of whites,” the organizers said.

Measurements of the skulls – craniometry – have been used to support the theories of the “inferior races”.

Exhibition curators estimate that the human exhibition “industry” attracted around 1.5 billion people between the 16th century and 1960.

Roots of the “freak show”

The reconstructed villages and the human “specimens” on display there owed part of their existence to “monsters” where individuals with physical anomalies – gigantism, dwarfism or bearded women among others – were presented as a spectacle by the owner of the village. PT Barnum circus. among others.

In Europe, “human zoos” reached their peak from the 1880s after further colonial conquests. Imported exotic decorations gave curious audiences the impression of visiting real African villages.

Some books and articles making up the collection of the “Human Zoo” exhibition Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD AFP

While Germany and France had already hosted their own “villages”, Belgium got its first in 1885, near Antwerp, with 12 Africans.

Twelve years later, their number has multiplied by 20 and the colonial section of the Universal Exhibition in Tervuren, satellite city of Brussels, has attracted a million visitors.

Time and time again, “the same message has been repeated thousands of times, and the public has come to really think that the African is a cannibal, inferior, dirty, lazy,” one of the curators, Maarten Couttenier.

“And those stereotypes still exist today – proof that colonial propaganda worked.”

In the last part of the exhibition, the question of how this racist denigration persists in everyday language challenges visitors with cliché sentences written in large letters on a white wall.

“I love black people!” – “Oh, you did better than I expected” – “The apartment is already rented”.

For Salomé Ysebaert, who conceptualized the museum’s exhibition, such remarks seem harmless and banal, but are in reality “micro-attacks” revealing that racism is still present in people’s minds, more than 60 years after the closure of the last “human zoo” in Brussels, in 1958..

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