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Literary and visual creation of the human museum : London ethnological shows, 1853-1859


KeywordsTriple Keywords
Concept formation
Market economy
Expansion (United States politics)
Global politics
International politics
Political history
World politics


Nineteenth-Century ethnological shows involved the display of thousands of colonised people in a variety of urban settings, including zoos, cabarets, private apartments, and scientific institutions. This dissertation focuses on two South African shows in particular: the “Zulu Kafirs” and “Earthmen”, both staged in London in the 1850s. Taking its lead from Charles Dickens’s pamphlet “The Noble Savage”, written after he saw the “Zulus”, this thesis looks at the Victorian fantasy of a “human museum”. Following a historical study of the concepts of “race” and “savagery” in the 18th and 19th centuries, we retrace the evolution of museological practices and look at Dickens’s fascination with a (monstrous) human museum. We then move on to consider Victorian ethnological shows and the African “specimen” as “ethnographical metonym” and myth, displayed in a true “heterotopic fantasy”. This fantasy was realized in the Natural History Department of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, where casts of the “specimens” on show were arranged in “ecological theatres”. There, the museum visit allowed for social exploration among the visitors, and raised the issue of (moral) cannibalism, at the point at which Victorian capitalism and imperialism met their own contradictions. These are further explored in Bleak House (1853), where Dickens attacks “telescopic philanthropy”, as the “ethnological preference” seemed to go to American slaves, whose narratives were published and staged. In this light, we might read A Tale of Two Cities (1859) as the realisation of the writer’s fear that the Poor might revert to a state of “primitive” savagery, if they remain overlooked in the philanthropists’ human museum.

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