Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Jardin d'Acclimatation: a human zoo

“Peaux Rouges” (Omaha Indians) on display in 1883

The Jardin d'Acclimatation is a 50-acre children’s amusement park in the northern part of the Bois de Boulogne, the great park set in western Paris. Among its attractions are a menagerie, a child’s scale train, lakes for operating radio-controlled toy boats, a puppet theatre and the Exploradome museum. Classes are offered for children on subjects such as cooking, gardening, magic, calligraphy and juggling.

But this “garden” had a bizarre former life. Opened in 1860 by Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, the Jardin Zoologique d'Aclimatation, as it was first called, was a Paris zoo. Beginning in 1877, however, it was converted to a zoo that exhibited humans. The name was then changed to “l’Acclimatation Anthropologique.” In the era of colonialism, Parisians were curious about foreign people. Thus Nubians, Bushmen, Zulus and other African peoples were “exhibited” in this human zoo. One of its earliest displays of humans centered on Inuits (Esquimaux - go ahead, try pronouncing it in French!).

In 1883 a popular exhibit was called “Peaux Rouges” – redskins, a term used to designate American Indians. The Paris “human zoo” was a huge success. Almost immediately, the number of visitors doubled, reaching the million mark by 1878. In subsequent years approximately thirty different ethnological exhibitions were presented. This practice did not cease until 1912.

Today's children's park is quite a contrast to its past.

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