Saturday, September 8, 2007

And every night they steal a few of the cattle from adjacent cages

Remember that zoo in the Congo that was housing a group of African musicians? Well, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is doing something worse: not just housing them, but setting them up as a display.
Who's minding Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo? No one, to judge from the controversy that has greeted its new exhibit, "Maasai Journey: An African Adventure."

Sparking the most outrage is a clutch of imported "Maasai warriors" whose job is to lend authenticity to the exhibit by acting as its "cultural interpreters."

But no one has criticized the exhibition's most disturbing aspect. Set within an "African Village," the Masai warriors, like the animals they daily interpret, are on display.


Although zoo officials protest that their good intentions are misinterpreted, their protestations are undercut by the shifting nomenclature they've employed to describe the Masai warriors. An April press release noted their fearsomeness: "They'll tell visitors stories of their frightening encounters with lions and leopards, and of wielding spears to protect their animals." Since the debate erupted, they've become tame "educators."

Yet they were initially dubbed Masai warriors because no group more fully embodies the quintessential Western fantasy about darkest Africa. Their putative violent virility is code for the Other; their alleged primitivism stands in stark contrast to civilization as we know it. Can you imagine these indigenous stock figures, set within a faux savanna, quaffing a grande, no-foam, sugar-free latte from Starbucks?

Of course not, which is why the zoo's representation of Africa is of a piece with late 19th-century European imperialism. Back then, Britain, Germany, and France appropriated Africa's resources and people, sent avaricious "explorers" and zealous missionaries to conquer and convert, and looted ancient sites, and ensnared rare animals for their museums and zoos.

This stereotyping is repeated in the Seattle zoo's strange decision in 2001 to construct an "African Village," and this summer use it as the interpretive stage for its Masai warriors. Why place a "village," which is a human environment, inside a zoo showing imported animals in their native habitat? So that visitors would equate the two, exoticizing each.

Damaging, as well, is how the "African Village" conflates cultures and people, indiscriminately throwing together Masai warriors and Kikuya architecture, a building type drawn from a different Kenyan cultural group. In this improbable setting, the zoo invites visitors to "Meet a Maasai and learn how their lives connect with savanna animals."

To understand this misleading invitation, imagine a zoo in Africa, where visitors are encouraged to "Meet an American and learn how their lives intersect with the large mammals of the Rocky Mountains."

The authors blame imperialism for this, and "U.S. cultural hegemony" for the idea that all African culture is the same (which of course I can't say for certain is really part of the exhibit; the zoo may be careful to point out that this is only Masai, and mention the variety of cultures found in Africa). I think that part of it is also the massive ignorance of the standard American to other cultures--it's certainly not well-covered in school, except perhaps in college-level anthropology courses. I'm not sure what in America there is with the purpose of educating people about other cultures. There's certainly organizations here and there for that, but nothing as national as zoos or museums. The zoo is about the closest thing we've got--as an institution, it devotes itself to informing people about living things that they're not likely to see.

Anyways. The authors of that article also mentions a precedent for this: Ota Benga, a pygmy who was placed in the monkey house of a zoo in 1906. In fact, I found the original New York Times article that they cite ("Man and Monkey Show Disapproved by Clergy", September 10, 1906), and this part of it stood out to me:
Director Hornaday, who recently returned from a trip abroad, was asked last evening whether he saw no impropriety in exhibiting Benga in the monkey cage, and if he was allowing it with the acquiescence of the Directors of the Zoological Society, to which he replied:

"Yes, what is being done in the matter is with the acquiescence of the society. The Scretary, Mr. Madison Grant, was in fact present when I made the arrangement with Dr. Verner for the keep of the little African savage.

Well, if Madison Grant thinks it's not racist, who are we to say otherwise?

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