Sadiah Qureshi (University of Birmingham)
Sujit Sivasundaram (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)
Paying to see living foreign peoples perform was enormously popular in the nineteenth century. Throughout the 1800s, for a shilling or more, the public flocked to see everyone from Africans to Aztecs in European metropolitan centres. Foreign peoples would perform songs, dances and ceremonies designed to showcase both their ethnic ‘singularity’ and lives abroad. Initially, such shows usually consisted of a single individual or small group imported in relatively haphazard circumstances. By the late nineteenth century, particularly under the aegis of world fairs, entire ‘villages’ of foreigners from around the world were being exhibited together.
Across the century, the shows provided a form of popular entertainment combined with intercultural encounter and scientific enquiry. For instance, the shows were routinely marketed as opportunities to meet and greet ethnic groups which were unknown in Europe. Canny impresarios sought to maximise their profits by associating their shows with ongoing military, political and missionary activity in the colonies. The shows were also routinely promoted as useful for anyone with an interest in race and the new disciplines of ethnology and anthropology. Thus, displayed peoples became specimens that were crucial to nineteenth-century debates on race. This paper will consider the importance of displayed people for broader histories of race, science and empire. In particular it will argue that the shows were crucial opportunities for intercultural encounter. Moreover, they were sites for the making of scientific knowledge because they allowed the lay and the learned to create and participate in ongoing debates on the nature of human variation. In doing so, the paper will also consider opportunities for future histories of science and empire.
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Part of the Field Notes: Histories of Archaeology and Anthropology Seminar series.
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