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Putting humans on display — Paris museum asks why

For centuries, colonizers plucked villagers from Africa, the Americas or the South Pacific and put them on display half a world away. Curator and former soccer star Lilian Thuram hopes the exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris makes people question deep-held beliefs about the "other."
Nineteenth century models of heads of a Botoduco man are shown at a new exhibition at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, Monday Nov. 28.Remy De La Mauviniere / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's a queasy experience, viewing chained tribal dancers do a white man's bidding, or African women stripped and photographed to feed European curiosity.

Until just a few generations ago, this is how most white people learned about those with skin of a different shade. A new Paris exhibit examines how for centuries, colonizers plucked villagers from Africa, the Americas or the South Pacific and put them on display half a world away. The demeaning tradition shaped racist attitudes that linger today.

Curator Lilian Thuram, a former soccer star and now anti-racism advocate, hopes the exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris makes people question deep-held beliefs about the "other."

"You have to have the courage to say that each of us has prejudices, and these prejudices have a history," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Thuram is an ideal public face for this unusual exhibit. A pensive black man with a ready smile, he has suffered racist insults on and off the field.

Former French international football player Lilian Thuram, answers reporter during an interview with the Associated Press, on the eve of the opening of a a new exhibition at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, Monday Nov. 28, 2011. Until less than a century ago, white people regularly put Africans, native Americans or Pacific islanders on display in circuses, expositions and shows. A new Paris exhibit, curated by former football star and anti-racism advocate Lilian Thuram, examines how this demeaning colonial-era tradition shaped attitudes that still linger today.(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)Remy De La Mauviniere / AP

It's a delicate undertaking for a museum: exhibiting offensive images without glorifying them, urging visitors to look closer and be repulsed.

Scientific curator Nanette Jacomijn Snoep said the exhibit isn't about blaming viewers of the past for their curiosity.

"For the visitors of this era, it was a way ... to see what was happening elsewhere in the world. Except that visitors weren't totally aware that was a spectacle, that it was a fabricated difference," fabricated to make the viewer feel superior, she said in an interview.

Many of the subjects of this colonial cruelty remain nameless, and forgotten to history. "Zulu Mealtime" one photo reads. "Bushmen." "Indian Chief." "Negro Head." An old film reel shows a Frenchman peppering commands at two dark-skinned dancers in headdress so cumbersome their faces are barely visible.

But some have been identified, including the great-grandparents of Thuram's 1998 World cup teammate Christian Karembeu, shipped to Paris from the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia and exhibited as "cannibals."

The Quai Branly exhibit includes a projected silhouette of South African Saartje Baartman, known to 19th-century viewers as the Hottentot Venus, and a naked, backside-only photograph of another African woman with similarly generous buttocks.

Just when you think the exhibit is all about the past, a familiar venue jumps out: New York's Coney Island features in an old "freak show" poster. Zulus were put on display at Buckingham Palace. Paris' Jardin d'Acclimatation, today one of the French capital's most popular amusement parks, once hosted human "zoos."

Such displays bolstered 19th-century scientists who sought to prove that different races were biologically distinct — and whites biologically superior.

"There is only one species of homo sapiens," Thuram said, standing defiantly in front of a metallic contraption once used to measure skulls. It resembles a torture device or mutant sextant, and is accompanied by sculpted busts meant to illustrate racial distinctions.

"This 'scientific racism' was introduced to the population. Visitors of the time could come to the Jardin d'Acclimatation and see people from Asia, Africa, Oceania behind an enclosure, and they were presented as savages," Thuram said. "You can see that there is a history, and unfortunately today we have the consequences of this history."

Recent comments by the president of soccer's world governing body and an ex-caddy for Tiger Woods exposed outdated views toward racism that continue to pervade modern life. France itself struggles daily with racism toward immigrants from former colonies, stretching from stadium violence to the unfounded fear among some that Muslims intend to supplant French culture with Islamic traditions.

Like much at the Quai Branly Museum — a spacious modern venue at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, former President Jacques Chirac's ode to colonized cultures — this exhibit is under-lit. The somber atmosphere augments the feeling that this part of history was anything but enlightened.

It elicits questions about disability and disease and how entertainers profited from them, exhibiting families with overwhelming facial hair, humans exceptionally tall or exceptionally tiny. These questions remain largely unanswered by a show that focuses instead on the racist aspect of putting other humans on display.

An audioguide is strongly recommended to give the exhibit the necessary context. The guides are available in English and German, and there is an English translation of some explanatory panels but not of each item displayed.

A triptych of funhouse mirrors and a video projection at the end of the labyrinthine exhibit offer moments to reflect. How tolerant are you? How do you feel watching two men in the video kissing? A white woman and black woman holding hands? A Muslim man praying?

The exhibit opens Tuesday and runs through June 3.