One of the first modern public human exhibitions was P.T. Barnum's exhibition of Joice Heth on February 25, 1835 and, subsequently, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. However, the notion of the human curiosity has a history at least as long as colonialism. For instance, Columbus brought indigenous Americans from his voyages in the New World to the Spanish court in 1493. Another famous example was that of Saartjie Baartman of the Namaqua, often referred to as the Hottentot Venus, who was displayed in London until her death in 1815. During the 1850s, Maximo and Bartola, two microcephalic children from Central America, were exhibited in the US and Europe under the names "Aztec Children" and "Aztec Lilliputians" (See Aguirre, Informal Empire, ch. 4). However, human zoos would become common only in the 1870s in the midst of the New Imperialism period.
1870s to World War II
Exhibitions of exotic populations became popular in various countries in the 1870s. Human zoos could be found in Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York, and Warsaw with 200,000 to 300,000 visitors attending each exhibition. In Germany, Carl Hagenbeck, a merchant in wild animals and future entrepreneur of many European zoos, decided in 1874 to exhibit Samoan and Sami people as "purely natural" populations. In 1876, he sent a collaborator to the Egyptian Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and Nubians. The Nubian exhibit was very successful in Europe and toured Paris, London, and Berlin. He also dispatched an agent to Labrador to secure a number of "Esquimaux" (Inuit) from the settlement of Hopedale; these Inuit were exhibited in his Hamburg Tierpark.
Geoffroy de Saint-Hilaire, director of the Jardin d'acclimatation, decided in 1877 to organize two ethnological spectacles that presented Nubians and Inuit. That year, the audience of the Jardin d'acclimatation doubled to one million. Between 1877 and 1912, approximately thirty ethnological exhibitions were presented at the Jardin zoologique d'acclimatation.
Both the 1878 and the 1889 Parisian World's Fair presented a Negro Village (village nègre). Visited by 28 million people, the 1889 World's Fair displayed 400 indigenous people as the major attraction. The 1900 World's Fair presented the famous diorama living in Madagascar, while the Colonial Exhibitions in Marseilles (1906 and 1922) and in Paris (1907 and 1931) also displayed human beings in cages, often nude or semi-nude. The 1931 exhibition in Paris was so successful that 34 million people attended it in six months, while a smaller counter-exhibition entitled The Truth on the Colonies, organized by the Communist Party, attracted very few visitors—in the first room, it recalled Albert Londres and André Gide's critics of forced labour in the colonies. Nomadic Senegalese Villages were also presented.
Native people of Suriname were displayed in the International Colonial and Export Exhibition in Amsterdam held behind the Rijksmuseum in 1883.In 1906, socialite and amateur anthropologist Madison Grant, head of the New York Zoological Society, had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City alongside apes and other animals. At the behest of Grant, a prominent eugenicist, the zoo director William Hornaday placed Ota Benga displayed in a cage with the chimpanzees, then with an orangutan named Dohong, and a parrot, and labeled him The Missing Link, suggesting that in evolutionary terms Africans like Ota Benga were closer to apes than were Europeans. It triggered protests from the city's clergymen, but the public reportedly flocked to see it.
Legacy of human zoos
The concept of the human zoo has not completely disappeared. A Congolese Village was displayed at the Brussels 1958 World's Fair. An African Village was opened in Augsburg's zoo in Germany in July 2005. In August 2005, London Zoo also displayed human beings wearing fig leaves (though in this case, the participants volunteered). In 2007, Adelaide Zoo ran a Human Zoo exhibit which consisted of a group of people who, as part of a study exercise, had applied to be housed in the former ape enclosure by day, but then returned home by night. The inhabitants took part in several exercises, much to the amusement of onlookers, who were asked for donations towards a new ape enclosure. In 2007, Pygmy performers at the Festival of Pan-African Music were housed at a zoo