Live Human Exhibits: The World Columbian Exposition as a Space of Empire

A theatricalised space that prompts visitors to immerse themselves into spectacles of what was construed as racial otherness, while acknowledging notions of Western cultural superiority and investing in public approval of US imperial efforts abroad—that was the fundamental idea underlying the Midway Plaisance, an amusement park committed to displaying human beings in elaborately set up ‘ethnic villages’ at the 1893 World Columbian exposition in Chicago. The following event staged on the fairgrounds is a paradigmatic example of the political agenda motivating the exposition: a group of Samoan men march together, wearing traditional attire, which includes a loincloth, a helmet, and necklaces. They carry a wooden sword, signaling their status as warriors. The nakedness of their upper bodies underlines their erect posture and athletic constitution. While the marchers look straight ahead, they are surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, mostly white bourgeois women, who gaze upon their bodies with fear and fascination.[1]

This scenario was part of the cultural program at the World Columbian exposition, which featured both “staged recreations of cultural performances […] and the drama of the quotidian,” i.e., everyday routines by people who had been recruited to inhabit the fairgrounds.[2] It is indicative of how the fair exploited ethnic and cultural differences, in this case by casting the Samoan men in mythical terms as the ‘noble savage.’ As the bodies of the performers were framed as racialised others in the fair’s ‘living exhibitions’, visitors were united in a shared, seemingly playful act of exploration. Providing fairgoers with an immersive experience that focused on staging ‘primitivist otherness’ against the backdrop of US grandeur, the World Columbian exposition fulfilled at least two main purposes: First, it reinforced then prevailing ideologies of race and ethnicity to generate a sense of collective solidarity with not only dominant cultural values in the US, but also the nation’s claims to power in the world. Second, it promoted a cultural narrative of Western progress that aimed to place the US at the forefront of the world stage.

Designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival on American shores, which marks a key event in the history of Western expansionism and European colonial efforts, the international exposition in Chicago mapped out US views of the world and suggested that “empire-building could be fun”.[3] This essay will show how the exposition’s construction of space and its immersive qualities as well as politics of representation gave visibility to US visions of empire.

The fairgrounds comprised two areas: The mile-long Midway Plaisance was conceptualised as an amusement park, covering eighty acres and featuring—next to the Ferris Wheel, souvenir shops, restaurants, and stores selling handmade crafts and artwork—show attractions and live exhibits of human beings.[4] Samoan islanders, Dahomeyans, Egyptians, and Innuits were among the groups recruited by fair agents for little money and ‘imported’ to Chicago to inhabit so called ‘ethnic villages’ in the Midway section and present visitors with a living example of ‘foreign’ cultures. This involved performances, such as theater plays, collective marches, folk dances, sacred rituals, and everyday tasks. While reinforcing racial stereotypes that prevailed in the Western cultural imaginary at the time, the ‘ethnic villages’ in the Midway Plaisance were staged so as to sell visitors a glimpse of the authentic.

The live exhibits at the Chicago exposition were inspired by the pioneering work of nineteenth century zoo directors and especially the display techniques of Heinrich Bodinus and Carl Hagenbeck. They occasionally featured native animals, ranging from elephants to orangutans, next to the human bodies they displayed in elaborately staged settings. They comprised replicas of buildings and housing objects, ranging from igloos to grass huts, native plants, and cultural artifacts, such as masks, weapons, or domestic utensils, that had been acquired by explorers on expeditions.[5] Nineteenth-century international expositions held in Europe had also exhibited humans. The International Colonial and Export Exhibition, which took place in Amsterdam in 1883, included Surinamese and Indonesian settlements on the fairgrounds. The Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889 featured villages populated by people from the French colonies. The World Columbian exposition in Chicago exceeded its European predecessors and especially the French version it was modeled after in size (covering an area of 280 rather than ninety-six hectares) and scale (featuring forty-six rather than thity-five participating countries). At the same time, it perpetuated the strategy of utilising the exposition space as a space for imagining the empire and its claims of power in the world. Considering the tradition on which the World Columbian exposition was built, the human exhibits at the Chicago fair placed it in a longer history of Western empire-building, underscoring US imperial efforts abroad and signaling—through the exposition’s sheer magnitude—the United States’ self-positioning as one of the major world powers.

The Midway Plaisance stood in stark contrast to the main exhibit, termed the “White City,” which was primarily dedicated to the US and European powers. The White City designated a wide area committed to representing US success in commerce, technology, and the arts. It was dominated by white facades of mostly neoclassical buildings that were lighted at night. State buildings and the buildings of European countries were located in the White City and thus guaranteed a space of exhibition and a site of representation.[6] The pavilion of the Republic of Haiti, erected near the buildings of the two European powers Germany and Spain, served as the only site of black representation in the exposition, which instead relegated ethnic minorities to the stereotypical exhibition sites in the Midway Plaisance.[7]

fficial Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition: Dahomey Village–On The Midway. – McAvoy Brewing Company, Chicago, located beside.The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition. Accessed via Wikipedia Commons.

The recreation of the Dahomey Village is a case in point. In line with the Western cultural imaginary of Africa, the Dahomey village featured around one hundred barely clothed inhabitants in their seemingly ‘natural habitat.’ This included three houses and several huts within a stereotypically simple African village setting that was decorated with natural elements conventionally associated with the landscape. Designed under the seemingly respectable banner of US-American ethnological and anthropological inquiry, the exhibition site emerged as an immersive space that relied on “staged authenticity”[8] to provide fair-goers with not only an allegedly instructive experience about ‘foreign’ cultures, but also an increasingly popular form of entertainment. In this vein, the Dahomey village was framed by two large signposts at its entrance whose depiction of the Dahomeyans employs the discourse of the ‘primitive savage.’ It portrayed men as brutal warriors and women as Amazons holding up the heads of what might be white explorers. This promised visitors who were willing to pay for admission to the village, the thrill of ‘first-hand’ impressions of what was construed as a tribe of warriors.

According to Eric Ames, the performance-based model undergirding human displays since the end of the nineteenth century signals a shift from scientific racism to popular racism, or rather, the intersection of these two discourses.[9] The installation of ‘ethnic villages’ in the World Columbian exposition reinstated theories of scientific racism and perpetuated colonial logics, while simultaneously signaling the rise of a form of popular racism that coalesced with the exploitative logics of a rising consumer capitalism and increasing global exchange. Staged as an attraction for visitors at the fair, the performers were literally faced with spatial displacement through their transfer to the US where their bodies were turned into commodity objects and ‘sold’ to a mass audience eager for spectacular entertainment. Created as “a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional performance space that claimed to be a self-contained environment,”[10] ‘ethnic villages’ provided fairgoers with just that: an allegedly playful immersive experience that was predicated on the physical co-presence of bodies, i.e. the performers’ and the visitors’ bodies. As visitors were transformed into explorers conducting a fieldtrip, the performance space of the Midway exhibit allowed them to live out a voyeuristic fascination with ‘racial otherness,’ ranging from fears of what was construed as savagery to desires for exotica.[11] These two central nineteenth-century discourses of primitivism—the notion of ‘the savage’ that was then accorded to African cultures and the notion of ‘the exotic’ primarily attributed to Eastern, Arabic, and Polynesian cultures—do not only point to the geographical underpinnings of Western discourses of primitivism, but also suggest conceiving of primitivism in terms of spatially defined degrees, so that a spectrum of spaces of primitivism emerges. This suggests challenging the simplistic binary notion of primitivism and civilisation in favour of a more differentiated understanding that considers historically specific space-related aspects informing these discourses. Through the numerous ‘ethnic villages’ installed in the Midway Plaisance, fairgoers gained “physical access to [a range of otherwise] distant objects, bodies, and spaces”[12] in scenarios and settings that feigned the authentic, yet reinforced a fantasy.

By emphasising and exploiting cultural differences between the performers and the fairgoers, human exhibitions at the Midway worked to create a sense of unity among visitors that were prompted to not only reaffirm segregationist practices of the Jim Crow era and beliefs in white superiority, but also to identify with the nation’s self-proclaimed mission as a harbinger of civilisation. Presenting visitors with stark contrasts between the White City and Midway Plaisance and with notions of civilisation and discourses of primitivism in terms of the spectrum outlined above, the World Columbian exposition aimed to generate both a sense of patriotic pride in the nation’s achievements and a sense of solidarity with US imperial efforts. In short, it sought to legitimise and win public support for the construction of a US empire. The spatial regimentation of the exposition grounds then constituted a small-scale replica of the Western imperialist view of the world that differentiated reductively between spaces of civilisation and spaces of primitivism, whereby the empire figured as the advocate of moral, cultural, industrial, and political values. Evocative of Rudyard Kipling’s notion of the “white man’s burden”, Western empires saw themselves in charge of a civilising mission to bring about advancement and progress, while thus justifying (neo)colonial acts of conquest and exploitation. This materialised in the commodification of racialised bodies that were sold to the public in staged spectacles recreating the colonial encounter, as the example of the ‘ethnic villages’ shows.

World’s fairs at the turn of the twentieth century built on an expanding infrastructural network that enabled overseas travels, the collection of artifacts, wild animal trade, the exchange of goods and products, and the movement of people. The exhibition of people imported for the fairs and the display of their bodies as ‘trophies’ of the West points to the perpetuation of colonial logics in the age of consumer capitalism and globalisation. Human exhibits were not a singular phenomenon at the Chicago world’s fair. Using the space of the exposition as a stage for US empire situates the World Columbian exposition within a historical continuum of Western empire-building efforts. In major cities of the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, the UK, Italy, and Poland, indigenous peoples were displayed at international expositions, fairs, or in both animal houses and ‘ethnic villages’ within zoos throughout the twentieth and even into the twenty-first century, as the controversial installation of the “African village” within the zoo of Augsburg in Germany in June 2005 shows. This reflects the prevalence of racist and colonial logics in the Western world. At the same time, it emphasises the need for undertaking critical reflections of global consumer capitalism and the continued appropriation, exploitation and commodification of racialised bodies.

[1] A photograph depicting the scene is reprinted in Barbara J. Ballard, “A People without a Nation,” Chicago History, Summer 1999: 27–43; 42.,%20A%20People%20Without%20a%20Nation.pdf

[2] Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “Objects of Ethnography.” Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. 386–443; 405.

[3] Robert Rydell has published seminal studies on the world’s fairs, see here: World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 22.

[4] For an overview of the structure of the Midway Plaisance, see Ballard 31.

[5] For the display techniques of Bodinus and Hagenbeck, see Aaron Santesso. “Living Authenticity: The World’s Fair and the Zoo.” Meet Me at the Fair. A World’s Fair Reader. Ed. Celia Pearce, Bobby Schweizer, Laura Hollengreen, Rebecca Rouse. Pittsburg: ETC Press, 2014. 41–51; 44ff. Santesso has shown the decisive influence of Carl Hagenbeck, the German pioneer of the Völkershow and living panoramas, on the construction of ‘ethnic villages’ at world’s fairs in major Western capitals. Hagenbeck served as a consultor and collaborated with the fair authorities of not only the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but also the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904 and the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931.

[6] Gail Bederman has explained in Manliness and Civilization. A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995) that the fair’s main area framed the discourse of civilisation in terms of white men’s power. The White City featured the women’s pavilion, which aimed to represent women’s contributions to the nation. It is, however, significant to note that this building was situated at the very margins of the White City and thus positioned apart from what was construed as the technological, intellectual, and cultural achievements of white men (cf. Bederman 34ff.). That is, the spatial structure of the exposition reinforced prevailing ideologies of gender, race, and ethnicity.

[7] For an overview of the structure of the White City, see Ballard 31.

[8] I take the term “staged authenticity” from Dean MacCannell’s article “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 79.3 (1973): 589–603. The concept of “staged authenticity” shaped the space of the world’s fair, as it provided fairgoers with an immersive experience that perpetuated colonial logics of “us” versus “them.” Staged authenticity also materialised, as this series’ guest editor Mashid Mayar has noted, in other seemingly didactic cultural formats at the time, such as school books, newspapers, and travel books, which exposed US-Americans to nothing but “staged authenticity.”

[9] For a better understanding of the historical context and performative power of live human exhibits, see Eric Ames, Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments (Seattle/ London: University of Washington Press, 2008), 4ff.

[10] Ames 8.

[11] The construction of racial alterity through the ‘ethnic villages’ erected in the Midway exhibit was informed by two nineteenth-century discourses of primitivism that Carole Sweeney has outlined: 1) a discourse of the primitive as a savage that construed Africanity as backwards, uncivilised, and uncultured and 2) a discourse of the primitive as the exotic that was attributed primarily to Eastern, Arabic, or Polynesian cultures. See Sweeney, From Fetish to Subject. Race, Modernism, and Primitivism, 1919–1935 (Westport, CT / London: Praeger, 2004), 14–18.

[12] Ames 13.


About Carmen Dexl

Carmen Dexl is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Her research interests include Dance and Performance Studies, Transnational American Studies, and African American literature and culture. Her PhD project, which she completed at FAU Erlangen-Nuernberg in 2017, explored the ethical and political agency of the anti-lynching narrative. Her second book project focuses on negotiations of aging in modern and postmodern dance. Carmen Dexl is a co-coordinator of the multidisciplinary research network “Knowledge Infrastructures,” funded by the Center for International and Transnational Area Studies at the University of Regensburg.
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