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Book Reviews: Human Zoos

Human Zoos. Edited with text by Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep.
Published by Actes Sud, 2012.
Human Zoos
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Human Zoos
Edited with text by Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep.
Actes Sud, 2012. Softcover. 382 pp., illustrated throughout, 9-1/2x11".


Human Zoos is an inexhaustible resource of period photographs and promotional materiel. The book is the companion piece to the Musee du Quai Branly's exhibit "Exhibitions: The Invention of the Savage" that was held between November 2011 and June 2012 in Paris, France. The focus of the exhibit was America's and Western Europe's view on the "savage" throughout the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th. It is sad, fascinating, and, like a textbook, endless. The historical information was exhaustively researched and is provided in a well-written narrative by Lilian Thurman with informative sidebars added by the show's curators throughout. The book is enriched not only with photographs, but period ephemera as well, including: tour guides, postcards, advertisements, paintings and newsprint.

Human Zoos, Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, eds. Published by Actes Sud, 2012.

The text traces the presentation and degradation of many nonwestern cultures as they were presented to the western world. Beginning with a chapter about the rise of the Freak Show, the text winds through the melancholy story of the dehumanization of Asian, African, Native American, Indian and other cultures as the west explored, conquered and claimed vast portions of the globe. Among the other choice information to be found and viewed is rarely voiced perspectives of P. T. Barnum and other showmen of the time, demonstrating how such spectacles as the sideshow began a debasement of mankind culminating in the placement of "savages" in actual zoos alongside the animals.

Human Zoos, Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, eds. Published by Actes Sud, 2012.
Human Zoos, Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, eds. Published by Actes Sud, 2012.

Due to its harsh subject matter Human Zoos provides a great deal of hard to find and hardly seen material. Among the most intriguing photos are the Villages erected for many different exhibitions such as the St. Louis World's Fair (in which Inuit peoples were imported to inhabit an "Eskimo Village" so as to familiarize Americans and the rest of the world with America's latest claim in the Louisiana Purchase). Similar exhibitions are covered in Paris, London, and Munich. The White City built by the English in London to demonstrate the India province of the British Empire is extremely intriguing and impressive in its craftsmanship.

Human Zoos, Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Boëtsch, Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, eds. Published by Actes Sud, 2012.

This book makes us genuinely aware that what we hold to be true from time to time is often a painted doll, a shadow of the natural truth. This fact hues with unease the work as a whole. Few photo books carry the weight and history that Human Zoos does. Its photographic salvo holds one's interest like a car crash. It riles the senses just as it stimulates them. Hours and hours can be lost in this book, which is a great quality. It is also provocative enough to make us reflect on our cultural values. Yes, this book is monstrously heavy but, it is a worthwhile weight.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is originally from Madison Wisconsin. He came to Santa Fe in 2002 and graduated from the College of Santa Fe majoring in English with an emphasis in poetry. He is an arts writer for the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque. 

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