Ethnographic Showcases, 1870–1930

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

"To see is to know" - this motto was attached to the anthropological exhibits of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, one of the many world fairs during the era of imperialism and colonialism (Rydell 1984:44). At these gigantic exhibitions, staged by the principal colonial powers, the world was collected and displayed. Natives from a wide range of colonized cultures quickly became a standard part of most manifestations of this kind. Together with their artifacts, houses, and even complete villages, so-called savages or primitives were made available for visual inspection by millions of strolling and staring Western citizens. Comparable places of spectacle such as zoos, botanical gardens, circuses, temporary or permanent exhibitions staged by missionary societies and museums of natural history, all exhibited other races and/or other species and testified to the imperialism of 19th-century nation-states.

In this article I will put these ethnographic exhibits into the wider context of the collecting, measuring, classifying, picturing, filing, and narrating of colonial Others during the heyday of colonialism. All these modes of dealing with the exotic, with colonial otherness, functioned in a context of European hegemony, testifying to the successful imperialist expansion of 19th-century nation-states and to the intricate connections that developed between scientific and political practices. Of course, I cannot bypass the historical changes and national differences in exhibitionary practices in the period under study - the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century - but I will concentrate on the similarities, which in my view are predominant, arguing that it is possible to have a wide range of seemingly divergent modes of dealing with the Other within one single analytic field (338).

Corbey, Raymond. "Ethnographic Showcases, 1870–1930." Cultural Anthropology 8.3(1993): 338–369.

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