Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Invention of the Savage - Exposition at the Musée du Quai Branly

Tom and I went to the Musée du quai Branly to see the exposition entitled L'Invention du Sauvage (The Invention of the Savage) last Sunday.  We were there for almost four hours and I still did not feel that I had explored the exhibit thoroughly!  It is so densely rich with information and images that a second visit is required to fully grasp the information presented.

What you will find at this temporary exhibit (open until June 3, 2012) is a chronological presentation of paintings, posters, photos, objects, and film of men, women, and children who were brought from their native lands to the North American and European continents to be displayed as "other."  At first, they were viewed as curiosities.

Madeleine de la Martinique
Le Masurier
Oil on canvas, 1782
National Museum of Natural History, Paris
 © Discover Paris!

As time progressed, they were thought of as "specimens" of inferior rank on what had been conceived as a hierarchy of humanity.  As such, they were people who "could and should" be dominated by European powers. One of the most interesting items displayed to illustrate this way of thinking is the cephalometre (cephalometer), an instrument designed to measure various dimensions and angles of the skull.

Dumoutier's Cephalometer
© Discover Paris!

The European tradition of exhibiting people from foreign lands began in the 15th century with Christopher Columbus and the transport of Indians from the "New World" to the royal court of Spain.  Indians from North America would come to fascinate Europeans and white Americans for centuries.  Inuit peoples (Eskimos), North Africans, Egyptians, black Africans, and Australian Aborigines were also transported for private shows and public spectacles - the latter included circuses, theatrical performances, colonial expositions, and human zoos.  Such events reached the height of their popularity during the 19th century.

Brite Okabak, Eskimo
Henri Cordier
Plaster, 1884
National Museum of Natural History, Paris
© Discover Paris!

Les Zoulous
Jules Chéret
Lithograph poster, 1878
Collection of research group ACHAC
© Discover Paris!

Poster, 1898
Collection of research group ACHAC
© Discover Paris!

Interestingly, we learn that France once considered people from several areas that are now part of the country as "other."  Bretons, Alsatians, and Savoyards were specifically mentioned in this regard.  According to the information presented, because these groups were strongly encouraged to abandon their cultural identities to become "French," they were exhibited at fairs and expositions so that people could observe these cultural distinctions before they disappeared.  The Alsatian "village" at the exposition at Nancy portrayed in the poster below was located alongside African "villages."

Poster advertising the Alsatian "village"
C. Splinder (Royer et Cie, ed.)
Poster, 1909 
Collection of research group ACHAC
© Discover Paris!

"Far West" shows depicting various Indian wars in the United States become wildly popular in Europe and the rest of the world during the first part of the 20th century.  The museum's exposition devotes a large area to this topic.  A beautiful black-and-white film montage of photographic portraits of Sioux Indians who appeared in William J. Cody's Wild West show is featured here. The photographer was Gertrude Käsebier, a transplanted New Yorker (originally from Iowa) who became fascinated by the show.

Indian headdress and film presenting photos of American Indians
© Discover Paris!

One panel in the exposition talks of the return of the remains of exhibited individuals who died in Europe to their countries of origin.  The most famous of these persons is Saartjie Baartman, whose remains were repatriated from France to South Africa in 2002.  Other countries have done the same - Belgium returned the remains of several Congolese persons who died during the Brussels International Exposition of 1897 to Congo in 1999 and Switzerland (University of Zurich) returned the remains of five Fuegians to Chile in 2010.

Saartjie Baartman, The Hottentot Venus
J. Barré
Oil on wood, c. 1810
National Museum of Natural History, Paris
© Discover Paris!

The exposition focuses largely on the theatrical performances and expositions that took place in Paris, but also presents information on events and concepts that originated elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.  The international success of Barnum and Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth" and its influence on the exposition of persons with malformations or other physical abnormalities is presented, as is the widespread adaptation of the prototypical itinerant village developed by Carl Hagenback, director of the Hamburg Zoo.  The tragic story of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in the same enclosure as an orangutan and who eventually committed suicide because he could not return to Africa, is represented via the bust that was made of him in 1906.

Bust of Ota Benga
Plaster, 1906
American Museum of Natural History, New York
© Discover Paris!

The last display that you encounter before leaving the exhibit is a contemporary, French-language film projected on three walls that depicts the "others" of today.  Among those featured in the film are a young man with Down Syndrome, a gay couple, a female gypsy, and a black man.

The didactic panels that explain the progression of the exposition are printed in English as well as French, but the labels for the more than 500 pieces that are exhibited are in French only.  Audioguides are available in multiple languages and the English version is very well done.  The exposition is very dimly lit, so photography is difficult.

Despite the limited presentation of information in English, I highly recommend visiting this exposition.  The visual impressions alone will strike a chord and inspire you to learn more.


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