Archive for November 1st, 2009

Review: The Human Zoo on Channel 4

1 November 2009

By Juliana Adelman

Ota_Benga_at_Bronx_Zoo In March of 1916 Ota Benga (pictured left) went into a barn in Lynchburg, Virginia and shot himself.  Twelve years prior Benga, an African Pygmy, had been brought to St Louis as part of an exhibition of races for the 1904 World’s Fair.  Benga was suspended between cultures: he chose not to stay in the Congo when he was returned there in 1906 but neither did he manage to make America home.  The Human Zoo: science’s dirty secret retrieves Benga’s story as part of a series on science and race being broadcast on Channel 4.  The programme links the 1904 exhibition, and others like it, to the development of Adolf Hitler’s ideas about racial purity.  The Human Zoo claims that exhibitions of so-called primitive races during the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to persuading the millions of people who attended them that science had proven white superiority.

Human exhibits were common and popular during the 19th century and well into the 20th.  In Dublin, the ‘Ioway Indians’ passed through in the 1830s and the zoo’s proprietors allowed them to keep the gate proceeds that their visit attracted.  As The Human Zoo‘s narrator points out, when travel was limited to the wealthy and adventurous, the only way to see different kinds of people was as at such a show.

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