Looking through my writings I listed some recognizable elements; we will find these again and again: the creation of distance; showing the Other in reducing circumstances; reduction-deduction: to see one Other equals seeing them all; the exhibitors, not the exhibited, decide how they are put on display; the exotic Other; the Phantasy of white dominance.
The creation of distance
Not only the fact that the exhibited were often behind bars or a fence creates a distance. The exhibitors were careful to select Others who spoke no western languages, to prevent the contact between them and the public. Imagine that they would be able to converse and find similarities!
The mobility of the exhibited was reduced, they could not freely visit the country or the surroundings – this prevented contacts with the locals and prevented that the Others would see ‘real life’, with poverty and weaknesses instead of wealthy, healthy, perfect westerners.
The mental distance was created by emphasizing the differences, not the similarities, between the Others and us. They were asked to show what they did in their daily life, to dress like they used to; there was no opening for them to adapt to their new circumstances at all!
Showing of the Other in reducing circumstances
Although asked to act out their daily life, the Others were in a cage or on a stage with nothing natural to do, instead of in, for example, a large wood. They were not lodged in hotels. They slept, washed and went to the toilet in their exhibition space. How embarrassing. The public was lead to think of them as dirty, ‘primitive’ people. Hence even the questioning of their status as human beings, or were they closer to animals?
Reduction-deduction: to see one Other equals seeing them all
This aspect was much helped by science. Saartjie Baartman was measured by scientists as ‘the’ hottentot. From the public dissection of Joice Heth, the doctor concluded that it was “easier to distinguish the skeleton of an African from a Circassian” than that of a dog from a hyena, a tiger from a panter…
The exhibitors, not the exhibited, decide how they are put on display
The organizers carefully organized every aspect of the show: they built the huts, had a decorum painted, put the fence, selected the exhibited and gave them instructions.
The public was never invited to a dialogue, but to watch. The gaze of the visitors was guided by the text on the program and the press, often with scientific support. The exhibited were obliged to fill in the expectations of the public, the clichés already created before their arrival. They were never asked how they wanted to be seen. Remember the image of the Australians, shivering of cold under their blankets, sitting in a corner with their backs to the public, ashamed of all that was said about them: that they would be disfigured, brutal man-eaters. Remember the Mohawks who discarded their own costumes for lack of success, and adopted a more Sioux look. Now there’s a real Indian for you!
The exotic – the wild and free other // the restrained self
All of this happens in Victorian times, with Western bodies in very restraining clothing. Nude photography of western women was strictly forbidden. The phantasy about the wild and free Other ran high. Photographers asked young girls and women to pose in a way that in the west was perceived as ‘sexy’; with naked breasts, arms up behind the head, a pose of availability and seduction. Thousands of postcards were produced.
The Phantasy of white dominance – fulfilling the greed
Picturing the other as primitive served one goal: to see oneself as ‘the better kind’ of man. To question the others’ degree of humanity opened possibilities of disrespect: to colonize them, make them work for free, steal land, resources, artworks. This was very convenient at a time of colonization, when western powers started to dominate the world – convenient for convincing the general public of the righteousness of the mission undertaken.
Science helped to this, trying to find arguments why the white man would be better.
Another aspect was that the white man wanted the Others to see him as perfect: only strong young people were sent out to the colonies, the exhibited others in the west were not allowed outside the premises of the exhibition.