Monday, 17 September 2012

The Disturbing Display of the Ethnographic Exhibits

                                 In 1803, for reasons we don’t need to look into today, Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the sale of French held territory in America to the US Government, the so-called Louisiana Purchase. 

Brochure for the World's Fair 1904

The centenary celebrations were, in fact, held in 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (colloquially known as the St Louis World’s Fair), the largest fair of its kind ever held. The Fair opened on April 30th 1904; 62 foreign nations were represented, together with 43 of the then 45 states of America, and was visited by over 19 million people. 

Map of St Louis 1904 - site of World's Fair at top middle

The 1904 Olympics games, originally planned for Chicago, were moved to St Louis when the organisers threatened to stage their own games in competition to the official games. On the massive site (1,200 acres) were agricultural, trade and scientific exhibitions, presenting the intellectual and technological progress of Western Civilization to date. 

The World's Fair Manual

As part of the illustration of this ‘progress’ there were exhibits showing the inferiority of other, more ‘primitive’ cultures from around the world, not least the newly acquired territories of Guam, Puerto Rica and the Philippines, as America was keen to demonstrate the beneficial and ‘civilizing’ effects of its influence in these areas. 

The Palace of Liberal Arts compared to ...

... Philippine's Thatched hut at the World's Fair

The Philippines exhibit was intended to show the stark contrast of the ‘backward’ culture to that of modern America. The Philippine Reservation covered 40 acres and was peopled with 1,000 ‘natives’ in a variety of villages, but the majority of ethnological exhibits were held on ‘The Pike’ – a ‘Polyglot thoroughfare of the world … a galaxy of forty stupendous amusements extend[ing] a distance of one and one-half miles.’ 

Attractions at The Pike

Here visitors could enjoy the Tyrolean Alps (with alpine villages, a 1,500 seat restaurant and Prussian and Bavarian bands), an Irish Village (with sixty ‘Sober Dublin Musicians’, jaunting carts and Blarney Castle), Paris (All the elements of gay Paris) or the Streets of Seville (A Gypsy lane in Barcelona). 

Paris on The Pike

Now all this sounds rather like one of our living history museums, with colourful folk in period costume going about their exotic businesses, which, of course, it was but there was a much darker side to some of the exhibits. In a bid to exhibit the variety of humanity, the head of anthropology at the Fair, W J McGee, sent out agents to find examples of people ‘  ranging from smallest pygmies to the most gigantic peoples, from the darkest blacks to the dominant whites.’ 

African exhibits at the World's Fair

One of these agents was the missionary and businessman Samuel Phillips Verner, who was contracted to bring back pygmies from Africa. In the Belgian Congo, Verner rescued a Mbuti tribesman called Ota Benga from slave traders and with his help persuaded four male Batwa and five Bakuba, together with other ‘red’ Africans, to return to St Louis. 

Bakuba warriors

The Force Publique militia of King Leopold II had slaughtered Ota Benga’s wife and children, and he feared that cannibals would eat him if he remained in Africa, so he was happy to accompany Verner to America. The Africans arrived after the start of the Fair (Verner, who was ill with malaria, was not with them), and were an immediate sensation, with Benga in particular capturing the public’s imagination. At four feet eleven inches tall and with his filed teeth, he was described in the press as ‘… the only living cannibal in America’, and was pleased to pose for photographs at five cents a time. 

Ota Benga

The pygmies developed a taste for cigars, which they bought with the money they earned from the photographs, but this behaviour infuriated McGee, who felt that it undermined their ‘authenticity’. His intention had been to show how modern humans had evolved from primitive peoples, and how a line could be drawn from black tribesmen, through other brown, red and yellow men, reaching a zenith with the white man. Such theories were very popular at the start of the 20th century, particularly in America, and were a confused amalgam of social, cultural and biological evolutionary theories, unilinealism, progressivism, eugenics and unmitigated racism. 

Mysterious Asia (!) at the World's Fair

Attempts to justify this madness under the mantle of respectable scientific theory resulted in mish-mash of uninformed misinterpretation, unintentional misunderstanding and deliberate misrepresentation parading itself as a rational justification for the subjugation of native populations, the colonisation of their lands and the imperialistic expansionism of Western nations. The ‘Human Zoo’ was one aspect of this attempt, as ‘primitive’ races were exhibited for the vicarious amusement of the masses, all the while being described as being of ethnographic or anthropological value. 

'Cliff Dwellers' at the World's Fair

After the Fair in St Louis ended, Verner accompanied Benga back to the Congo, where he re-married (although his new wife died later from a snakebite) and lived with the Batwa although he never felt truly accepted by them. When Verner returned to the US, Benga went with him and after some negotiations, he took up residence at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Here he fell under the influence of William Hornaday, the director of the zoo, and Madison Grant, a racial anthropologist and eugenicist (Grant later wrote The Passing of the Great Race, a work that Adolf Hitler called his favourite book), and was exhibited in the monkey house at the zoo, sharing a cage with an orang-utan, in an attempt to demonstrate the similarities between ‘primitive’ races and apes. 

Ota Benga

A number of African-American clergymen protested at the treatment of Benga and after two days the exhibitions ended and Benga eventually passed into the custody of Rev James Gordon. Gordon arranged a place in the Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum for Benga, from where he passed into the care of the McCray family in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he began to learn English and had his teeth capped. He gave up his elementary education when he started work in a tobacco factory, and started to save money for his fare back to Africa but his plans were frustrated by travel restrictions imposed at the outbreak of the First World War. On March 20th 1916, Ota Benga built a ceremonial fire, removed the caps from his teeth and shot himself through the heart with a stolen pistol. 

He was buried in an unmarked grave.

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