Zoos as colonialist enterprises

One of my favorite academic books is Professor John Willinsky's "Learning to Divide the World." In this book, Willinsky describes what he calls "imperialism's educational project" (p. 56). He traces the beginnings of that project to the late fifteenth century, when European explorers began conquering communities in the "New World" and bringing "artifacts" back to Europe with them.

For instance, when Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his trip to the "New World" in 1492, he brought back several Arawak individuals from the newly re-named "San Salvador." During this act of display and consumption, the Spanish were coming together to view the "exhibition of empire," which was to become a "constant educational element of the experience of imperialism" (p. 56). Willinsky (1998) argues that "the native-on-display was to be both spectacle and object lesson for the European imagination" (p. 56).

Throughout the next five centuries, various forms of public instruction took place in educational institutions and arenas across Europe such as museums, international expositions, zoos, and public gardens that put on display "the world possessed through imperialism" (p. 56). This "exhibitionary pedagogy" (Willinsky, 1998, p. 85) helped its learners—those Westerners who gazed upon the "spectacles of empire"—to come to "see the world as a lesson in its own achievement" (p. 85).

As Willinsky puts it, the lessons of imperialism centered on how to view and categorize the world. Imperialism taught its learners how to distinguish between themselves and the "other"; it taught how to "read the exotic, primitive, and timeless identity of the other"—through focusing on skin color, hair texture, language, or distinctions of taste.

Through highlighting themes such as "conquering, civilizing, converting, collecting, and classifying," (p. 13), imperialism's educational project also helped European citizens learn into their "natural" and "proper" place at the top of world: "To gaze into the captioned display case of bushman weaponry was to learn as much about Western hegemony over the world as could be learned by reading about the nation's military presence abroad. The West's way of putting the world on display… was an education in how to hold the world in mind, with little thought given to the power required to mount such exhibits" (p. 57).

The imperial legacy remains today and manifests itself in contemporary zoo design, which is less about "display" and more about providing an affective, immersive, entertainment-based experience that places the visitor in the starring role. I posit that zoos are still colonialist enterprises, but they use new forms of affect and immersion experiences as part of their entertainment enterprise.

If you want to learn more about the history of colonialist display, including the disturbing history of zoos and the colonialist legacies they still perpetuate, here's a couple of great resources. Discovery Science has written this great overview and also produced a terrific documentary called, "Human Zoos: America's Forgotten History of Scientific Racism." And here's a great article from Smithsonian Magazine called, "Science Still Bears the Fingerprints of Colonialism." And finally, here's a great piece published in The Conversation: "Is It Time to Break with Colonial Legacy of Zoos?'.