Tuesday, June 07, 2005


This is the most offensive thing I've seen in a long time:
Zoo organizers in the southern German city of Augsburg have come up with the idea of putting Africans on display at their zoo as an uncoventional way to attract more visitors. That's right. They want to create a living "African Village" featuring African basket weavers, woodworkers and storytellers posed among huts located near other African inhabitants, like elephants and rhinos. The idea is to let visitors gawk at -- or as their brochure says -- "discover the Dark Continent." Plans for the show -- scheduled to open July 9 -- have engendered outrage from Africans and civil rights advocates across Europe, but particularly those in Germany. Historian Norbert Finzsch, provost of the University of Cologne, too, has lambasted the project, insisting it underscores that in Germany "people of color are still seen as exotic objects (of desire), as basically dehumanized entities within the realm of animals." Finzsch insists the idea to hold such a display is "the direct result of 40 years of German colonialism and 12 years of National Socialism.

Zoo organizers seem to be painfully oblivious to their insensitivity and claim to be at a loss to understand the commotion. For instance, in a written reply to a Swiss African protestor, zoo director Barbara Jantschke, insisted that the idea was not to offend people. Instead, she said, the zoo is "exactly the right place to convey an exotic atmosphere." Nor could she understand the brouhaha, after all, one of the organizers is himself "a native African with black skin." Ever heard of sensitivity training?
I cannot believe that the quote-unquote "show" is still scheduled to go ahead. I don't know whether to be more offended if Barbara Jantschke is sincerely puzzled or if she's being disingenuous.

[Via Foreign Dispatches.]

Update, 9 June: I tried to find information about this event on the Augsburg Zoo's webpage, but since I don't read German, that didn't work. Thanks to American Amnesia, I see that this is the page. So, in fact, the "African Village" exhibition is going on as we speak! (I guess the Spiegel story might have mixed up June with July...) By the way, if you feel like complaining to Barbara Jantschke, her e-mail is barbara.jantschke@zoo-augsburg.de.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, and I thought reality tv was dehumanizing at times. The fact that the organizers remain oblivious despite the protests is horrifying.

What's next? Bring in Eskimos to hunt the polar bears? American Indians to demonstrate smoke signals? I know, how about we put Jews in tightly regulated camps...oh wait, been there, done that.

(And lest anyone think I'm being unfair, I have German ancestry. Also, Godwin's law does not apply.) 

Posted by BotanicalGirl

6/08/2005 07:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the comparison to the Nazis is perfectly fair, Godwin's law notwithstanding. The racism embodied in the Augsburg zoo's decision (even if it is unintentional) is of a piece with, as Finzsch said, "40 years of German colonialism and 12 years of National Socialism." 

Posted by Andrew

6/08/2005 08:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's kind of surprising to me, since Germany has a lot of immigration and Africans are not an uncomon sight on the streets of Berlin. I mentioned this story to a black co-worker of mine and he reacted with "So how much does it pay?"  

Posted by SLAronovitz

6/09/2005 11:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's kind of surprising to me, since Germany has a lot of immigration and Africans are not an uncomon sight on the streets of Berlin"

Yea, but just ask these immigrants how they're treated, and ask Germans what they think about immigrants... Anti-immigrant sentiment is a real problem in Germany, especially against Turks who make up a large and growing part of the population. Because of German jus sanguinis citizenship laws, most of them aren't German citizens even though they have been living in Germany for two or three generations. 

Posted by Andrew

6/10/2005 12:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're correct of course, but the simple fact there are 1000s of Africans in Germany tells me that everyone knows what they look like already, and a zoo exhibit of Africans seems like a very silly proposition.

Perhaps this can be explained by a liberal drug policy and the availability of beer in the German workplace.


Posted by SLAronovitz

6/10/2005 01:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You're correct of course, but the simple fact there are 1000s of Africans in Germany tells me that everyone knows what they look like already, and a zoo exhibit of Africans seems like a very silly proposition."

Oh, I see - I didn't get what your point was at first. Good point. But I think the point of the exhibit is not so much to display Africans per se (ooh, look at their brown skin!), but to display "African culture." Obviously, the exoticization/zoo-ification (yes, I just made that word up) of culture is just as problematic as the exoticization of humans as biological specimens. And I have no doubt that the exhibit shows little or no sensitivity to the vast diversity in African cultures. 

Posted by Andrew

6/10/2005 01:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the real trouble here is the juxtaposition of people with animals in a zoo. Last year I visited a Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu that seems to be very much like what is being proposed... it was entirely respectful and offered my children and me ample opportunities to converse with and learn from Polynesians about traditional arts and ways of life.

So open African village, by all means. Just not, God forbid, anywhere near a zoo. 

Posted by DDK

6/20/2005 04:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DDK, Yes, I agree that the zoo aspect is the real kicker. 

Posted by Andrew

6/20/2005 04:17:00 AM  
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