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Ethnological Expositions
Dr. Arzu Çiçek / Paedagogy
Photo: UniService Transfer

Racism as a world order program of modern European culture

The racism researcher Dr. Arzu Çiçek on ethnological expositions and their effects until today

Even the ancient Egyptians publicly displayed people who looked different or seemed strange. In the 19th century, these 'human zoos' under the name ethnological exposition experienced a tremendous boom in Europe. What was shown there?

Çiçek: This question can certainly be answered from various research directions. If I were a historian, for example, I would perhaps refer to historical documents from this period and perhaps talk about the fact that there were very few state-organized exhibitions in the former German Reich until the end of World War I. There were certainly some exhibitions organized by the Colonial Office, but most were organized by private companies such as Hagenbeck. And these events took place not only in zoos, but in many public spaces such as inns or marketplaces. I answer from the point of view of an education and racism researcher and would like to start with a preliminary remark regarding the term human zoo. I consider this to be problematic as an uninterrupted reproduction, in that when we repeat such expressions, we are in a sense also repeating the colonial gaze that can be seen in the phenomenality of this word human zoo. If we continue to dehumanize people through our language, we in turn block perspectives on people, realities and personalities for ourselves through this practice. Therefore I would plead, and this is my preliminary remark, that we look for other expressions so that we do not continue this practice in favor of a continuity marked by violence. Exhibiting is important here. Exhibiting, if I view at it as an education researcher, is first of all a practice that is aimed at the education of the visitors who have come to these exhibitions. Exhibiting as such is a practice that participates in the formation of social and cultural meaning. The crucial point is that in any exhibition, the exhibited is not simply an object. Every exhibition is a network, that is a connection between immaterial and material actors. Think of the share of the artists, the art mediators, the viewers or listeners. But also the exhibition spaces themselves, the pedestals on which they are presented, the technique of the exhibition, such as the lighting, and much more intertwine here. One can therefore describe the exhibition as an arranged framework. With regard to the arranged nature of such exhibitions or displays, one can perhaps see a common ground between the ancient Egyptians and the exhibitions of the 19th century. From the point of view of education and racism, however, and this marks a difference, one must say that the 19th century was a time of European empires and the time of colonialism. If we want to understand the exhibitions of so-called ethnological exhibitions, we have to look at them as arranged frameworks in this development. They establish themselves in a specific, contemporary historical situation. The conquest of the global south, the exploitation of countries and the enslavement of people was explicitly legitimized by racial theories from science and philosophy as early as the 18th century. Names such as the naturalist de Buffon or the philosophers Kant and Hegel can be mentioned here. Racism as a specific European invention, in this phase of expanding European empires, in the period of colonialism at the beginning of modernity, has conditioned, made possible and required these special exhibitions.
Against the background of the invention of the human races and the legitimization of slavery, we can consider these exhibitions as part of a shift in the understanding of European culture. They are part of a new narrative about man, part of a great educational project. Both the bodies of the exhibited people and the bodies of their viewers are embedded in this new doctrine of the human races, and their senses are formed in a new way through such exhibitions. Here not only language but also meaning is formed.
But now to the question of what was shown there, in the so-called ethnological exhibitions. For me, the question is rather, what can we presented about the showing of such exhibitions or displays?

The circumstances under which these people were exhibited were often appalling. Abducted from their home countries, they were often presented in cages and usually died on these tours due to cold and malnutrition. Were ethical concerns a foreign word for the organizers of the time?

Çiçek: Ethical concerns were certainly not foreign to the people of that time. But we can understand that these exhibitions took place en masse if we look at the already established social practices of the time. What is already established here? The practice of exhibiting itself, considering that the 19th century is also the century of the bourgeois museum as an educational institution. And the exhibition form of artifacts already corresponds to that of goods in department stores or things at fairs, not to mention the world exhibitions that begin in 1851. Exhibiting as a presentation pressed into a certain form was also part of a lucrative business.
The aspect of the legitimation of slavery and the racial theory, which ennobles the white man because of his skin color, is the purpose of racism in this hour of history.

The attraction of the unknown attracted millions of Europeans to these ethnological exhibitions. Did these events make racism popular?

Çiçek: The fact that millions of Europeans took part in such exhibitions at least shows that it was a big business. From an educational point of view, in addition to the narrative, one must also consider the formation of certain body schemata. Participation in an exhibition appeals more than what a textbook can arrange in letter forms. Instead of schematic orders of races, one can see living people there. Participation in an exhibition differs in one particular aspect. This is where the experience as a spectacle comes into play. The experience runs through a sensual participation and as such reaches much more strongly into an affective, psychological dimension. Here, as I said, body formation takes place. In other words, ehtnological exhibitions not only popularize racism, they do. They accelerate it even more. They endow the linguistic order, humanity, as defined by Kant in his paedagogical writings, is in its greatest perfection in the white race; with the power of an affect and the emotion accompanying the experience.

The most important thing about these shows was that the Europeans felt superior to the foreign cultures. Is that not also a phenomenon that can be observed today with regard to people with a migration background?

Çiçek: The feeling of superiority is only one aspect of the educational process that fundamentally changed the society of the beginning modernity and the 19th century. What could be seen in a so-called ethnological exhibition were neither peoples, nor cultures, nor societies. Here, only individual people were exhibited as specimens, as examples of something of which not they themselves speak, but the narratives of human races. People are presented on stage or in cages and embedded in a completely different language and culture. They are presented in forms that have little or nothing to do with how they lived their lives before. It is not about what is exhibited, but about inscribing into the experience and memory of the viewers a racist order or hierarchy of the new world order, which is initially spelled out by the color of the skin. And in this context the supposed integrity of white skin color is always emphasized. Integrity naturally also conveys a feeling of superiority. But at its core, it is about creating strangeness and establishing a certain way of dealing with the so-called foreign.
With regard to so-called migrants or people with a migration background, it can be shown that they too are always presented in a certain way. I am thinking here of the press, television, the Internet. How quickly people are assigned to a label, for example of being a migrant, pressed into forms that are not just stereotypical. Today there is a powerful, to use Adorno's term, 'cultural industry' for this. Here, people with dark skin color, for example, are specifically sexualized, criminalized or demonized. And racism research has been pointing to this for a long time.

There is also a sad example of this for Wuppertal. At the 1885 ethnological exhibition, Aborigine, who was already suffering from tuberculosis and who was given the name, Sussy Dakaro, was to perform at the Zoo of Wuppertal as a "boomerang throwing cannibal". But the 17-year-old was too weak and died in Sonnborn. In 2017, the civic association inaugurated a memorial plaque on her grave that could still be found. When did these exhibitions end?

Çiçek: 'The boomerang throwing cannibal' first confirms what I have already said. From my perspective, there is still no end to such exhibitions. Our technical culture has changed a lot since the 19th century. Just as paintings have been replaced by photography, the playhouse has long since become the television and the media on the Internet. If you look, you see a lot. Racism is reproduced in advertising, a few weeks ago in a VW commercial, or in the Sunday evening thriller. But racist stereotypes are also reproduced in textbooks, political speeches, etc. Or the entertainment industry: Phantasialand in Brühl, where you can visit certain countries on a family outing, such as the China department, and watch the dancers. So this is still a profitable spectacle where it is not important whether the dancer actually comes from China and whether everyone there dances in this way, but rather the continued production of traditional fantasies of homogeneity and the serving of such ideas.

How does racism still affect our society today?

Çiçek: The racist order of the world, the way people are treated and their esteem in general is about establishing a hierarchy. And this is how racism affects us today. Not only in cultural or moral terms, but above all in material terms, certain people still benefit from racist orders today, while others are repeatedly injured, damaged or even murdered by renewable experiences, physically, mentally, or emotionally. The pictures of George Floyd's murder, which still occupy us and which many people cannot forget, are only one event of many bad events, which happen every day everywhere on our planet because racism today is still not part of the past of our world. Racism occurs in our educational institutions, on the labour or housing market, on the borders and in the name of the European Union, when we think of the camps in which we imprison refugees. Racism also occurs in discourses, e.g. on immigration, or in everyday life in the socio-scientific everyday life, namely in the form of a methodological nationalism that has long been made readable. Racism is a world order program of modern European culture. For a long time it was either attributed to the past or to the scene of Neo-Nazis. But racism is a part of our everyday culture and is established there not only in the politically right milieu. We will deal with its legacy for a long time to come in order to understand what racism is and how it works.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 05.08.2020)


Dr. Arzu Çiçek studied German Studies and Sociology in Paderborn and Wuppertal. Since 2016 she has been a research assistant in Educational Science with a focus on gender and diversity at the University of Wuppertal. Her work focuses on migration education, alterity and racism criticism.