Ethnological Expositions and German Colonial Exhibitions



Discrimination & Inequity

During the heyday of European Colonialism in the middle of the 19th century, Ethnological Expositions or Peoples Shows became increasingly popular. Non-European persons were put on show in zoos, circuses, in industry and colonial expositions by white people.

Even during the early modern period, non-European persons, who, along with flora, fauna and objects of interest were brought to Europe by Europeans from their voyages of discovery, were exhibited in shows. The 19th century saw the development of so-called Ethnological Expositions into lucrative mass events. The first major show was organized in 1874 by an animal trader from Hamburg, Carl Hagenbeck. The show exhibited a group of Laplanders and a group of Nuba from Sudan. By 1940, around 400 such shows had taken place, of which around 100 were organized by the firm Hagenbeck.

Hagenbeck perfected the Ethnological Expositions and made them a great commercial success. People were typically depicted as exotic, wild; the representations were frequently erotisizing and emphasized physicality. This served the fantasies and expectations of the white audiences about the “Other”. The point was hardly to inform the audience about their lives, but rather to confirm existing prejudices and stereotypes of the white majority. The participants, who were at times put in cages like animals, were often performers or artists with a high social standing in their own communities.
During the first German colonial exhibition in Berlin in 1896, which took place during a trade fair, over a hundred Africans were exhibited to the public in a fake village set around the Karpfen Pond in Treptower Park. Many of these persons belonged to the middle or aristocratic classes or enjoyed a high status because of their professions in their home countries. They did not know the customs and rituals they were expected to perform in this artificial village. The son of the Herero leader Samuel Maharero, Friedrich Maharero, refused the folk costumes and appeared at the exhibition dressed in a suit.

These Ethnological Exhibitions and Colonial Exhibitions are under sharp critique from different communities in the current struggles for a decolonial politics of memory. The most recent debate was about the “African village” in the Augsburger Zoo in 2005, where a sort of “African Market” of Black persons was constructed near cages and wild animals. Critics point out that this is not only reminiscent of the racist colonial Ethnological Expositions of the 19th century, but reproduces as well power relations and the colonial gaze.