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  #1
Cultural Zoo Exhibits = Racist?
Old 30-07-2010

Later this year, the Houston Zoo will be opening an exciting new exhibit area, the African Forest, which will include gorillas, chimpanzees, hippos, okapis, and much more. It had better be exciting, as it will be costing the Zoo over $40 million. All pictures of the proposed exhibit (see ZooChat thread) make it look very good!

But if you Google "houston zoo", "african forest", and tack on "racist", you get a lot of response links. Apparently, there's a political movement down in Texas to label this new exhibit as "racist". Here's a prime example of this movement:
Is the Houston zoo's exhibit racist?

Apparently, these political folks are offended in that the African Forest will be a cultural exhibit, where not only the animals of a world location are presented, but also the human culture of that same area. Zoo fans know this is quite common in modern zoos, with many cultural African exhibits (Dallas, Disney, SDWAP, KC, Binder Park); Asian exhibits (Woodland Park, Bronx, LA, Utah); South American exhibits (Jacksonville, Miami, Phoenix); and even Australian exhibits (Fort Wayne, Cleveland).

The above article says "Zoo exhibits that teach about non-Whites, replicating their villages among animal habitats, are called 'human zoos'." Further down, the author says, "Whites are never showcased in zoos". The bottom line is, she is absolutely wrong. In my response (see the article), I pointed out that Minnesota's new Russia's Grizzly Coast exhibit shows Russian culture -- and Russians are primarily white. Fort Worth's Texas Wild! exhibit includes a fantastic Texas town, showcasing the culture of (white) Texans from the late 1800s. The same could be pointed out with the major Australian exhibits.

Secondly, whether the zoo exhibit is showcasing the culture of Africans, Asians, South Americans, Australians, or even Europeans, I've never yet seen anything demeaning towards the people they are spotlighting.

What do you all think?
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  #2
Old 30-07-2010

There's a whole modern subculture whose whole effort seemingly goes into being offended by things for absolutely no credible reason. This seems to be the latest incarnation.

It would be possible for this type of exhibit to be racist if it was incredibly poorly
handled, but I've never come across any.


That said, I don't tend to pay these types of displays much attention in zoos - I wanna see the animals! It'd be interesting to see some studies on what sort of impression 'normal' (i.e. non-zoo-nerd!) visitors have of them.
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  #3
Old 30-07-2010

This article is unbelievable I don't even know where to begin criticizing this.First of all is this author is totally unaware of what Africa would look like right now if not for things like National Parks and Conservation Programs.It would be a baron heap of burning ruins devoid of all of its former wildlife and natural resources.This is a land of some of the greatest treausures the world has ever seen.Take Ghana as an example it has lost over 90% of its rainforests.Those who care cannot just sit back and watch war and politics continue to ravage this continent because we don't wanna interfer or offend the indiginous people of Africa.However this is not to say that some companies don't exploit ecotourism and profit from it but sadly it is necessary.
As far as the Houston Zoo African Forest goes its absurd to even think for a moment that this racist.Exhibits like these are a symbol of faraway cultures and offer an opportunity for all mankind to learn about them regardless of race,gender or religion.The Houston Zoo is a wonderful place one of the finest zoos I've been to and I am going to e mail them in support of this project and I encourage all of you who love wildlife to do the same.

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  #4
Old 30-07-2010

OK, I've done some further research on this. Five years ago, it was claimed that a similar African exhibit at Germany's Augsburg Zoo was "racist", resulting in a major protest:
Protests against Human Zoo i Houston: Africans on display together with chimpanzees?

This is actually turning into a pretty big deal in the Houston blogs, including this from what sounds like a rather racist site to me, "Stuff White People Do":
stuff white people do: displace non-white peoples and put their cultures on display in zoos

They are trying hard to promote this idea that these exhibits are "Human Zoos". They've even started a FaceBook site on this idea:
Human zoos | Facebook

I think we (zoo fans) need to fight this. We need to draw some lines in the sand. Cultural exhibits are not "human zoos". If we lose this rhetorical battle, zoos will take a major step backwards in the world of public perception.
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  #5
Old 30-07-2010

Well, rather than reacting to the "R" word, I thought it worth trying to understand what the author was saying.

Here is a Google book on the issues in conservation that she criticizes.
Conservation and mobile indigenous ... - Google Books

Form your own opinion.
Even if you want to debate her, you'll need to know where she's coming from... if that is really possible

I also think that the zoo community ought to ask itself what is the purpose of cultural exhibits. Really.
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  #6
Old 30-07-2010

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Originally Posted by Zooplantman View Post
I also think that the zoo community ought to ask itself what is the purpose of cultural exhibits.
Simple. To make zoos more interesting and more educational.

Personally, I'm a HUGE fan of cultural exhibits! Usually my favorite exhbits in a zoo are the cultural exhibits, if they are done right. My personal goal is to see zoos become more attractive to people who don't usually go to zoos. These are the kinds of exhibits that will attract non-zoo goers.
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  #7
Old 30-07-2010

I don't have time to read the article cited in full right now but feel that such 'African' exhibits have to be seen in the historical context of 19th and early 20th century displays of 'native' peoples, for example Hagenbeck's displays and the case of Ota Benga.

Such displays equated indigenous peoples with animals and the display of both was in many ways an act of imperial domination and supremacy. See also the tradition of totem polls in bison enclosures and African and Asian animals housed in 'temples'.

In this light I think any kind of cultural elements of zoo exhibits need to be approached with extreme sensitivity. I don't know about Houston's plans but I know for a fact that this is often done in a somewhat clumsy manner.

My other point, one that I feel strongly about and I noticed that Shannon Price touches on is the rather blunt approach often taken with this kind of cultural theming. Africa is not a monolith, 2000 languages are spoken and even relatively small areas can be linguistically and ethnically extremely complex. 'African' villages in zoos rarely reflect this complexity much as 'Savannah' exhibits are very often a mishmash of species not found in one single region.

There is massive potential for offence in these kind of exhibits, particularly where religious imagery is used for 'atmosphere' and most of all, it needs to be seen in the context of centuries of domination and exploitation.

EDIT: I do think, however it is important to show animals in the context of their native environments which is massively relevent. I would cite the information about local communities in gorilla habitats at London Zoo and Copenhagen's museum style exhibits in the elephant house as good examples of this.

Sensitivity in highlighting historical issues (such as a people's relationship with the elephant) and current challenges (such as the issues faced by populations in developing nations, bushmeat, poaching etc) are far more important that anachronisitic exoticastion in my view.

Last edited by Shirokuma; 30-07-2010 at 07:30 AM.. Reason: Thought of something else...
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  #8
Old 30-07-2010

Quote:
Originally Posted by Shirokuma View Post
There is massive potential for offence in these kind of exhibits, particularly where religious imagery is used for 'atmosphere' and most of all, it needs to be seen in the context of centuries of domination and exploitation.
Yes, and those communities who historically have been colonized and oppressed have a very different perspective on the subject than the descendants of the colonialists (for lack of a better term). This makes true dialogue and understanding especially challenging
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  #9
Old 30-07-2010

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Originally Posted by Zooplantman View Post
Yes, and those communities who historically have been colonized and oppressed have a very different perspective on the subject than the descendants of the colonialists (for lack of a better term). This makes true dialogue and understanding especially challenging
That's very true and is a reason why a Texan themed exhibit in Texans, made by Texans and visited by Texans is far less complex and problematic.
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  #10
Old 30-07-2010

Another thing that really bothers me about this is that the article in question had originaly been posted on several websites including Things White People Do.The article was titled Human Zoo next to a picture of a pygmy who had been on exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1906.People werent even reading the article and coming off with the impression that Houston would be exhibiting humans which is completely insane.I read dozens of comments of how disgusted people were and how they were writing the Zoo until someone finally posted to the contrary.Anyways i just cannot beleive what a big deal some people are making of this and hope it dont affect the exhibit one bit.

Marty from Team Tapir
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  #11
Old 30-07-2010

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Originally Posted by ANyhuis View Post
Simple. To make zoos more interesting and more educational.

Personally, I'm a HUGE fan of cultural exhibits! Usually my favorite exhbits in a zoo are the cultural exhibits, if they are done right. My personal goal is to see zoos become more attractive to people who don't usually go to zoos. These are the kinds of exhibits that will attract non-zoo goers.
Personally I find them generally pretty dull, but that is just a personal opinion.

I don't really see how it attracts more people in - you generally wouldn't know they were there until you got there anyway and I'd much rather they were done properly by a dedicated museum than half-heartedly (or even expensively!) in an attraction that people visit primarily to see animals. Even zoos with a major non-animal attraction (Dudley or Zlin with their castles, for example) seem to struggle to attract 'non-animal' visitors; it's going to have to be a pretty major cultural display to have any effect on visitor numbers.

It's nice to see a bit of human context in a themed exhibit, but the focus needs to stay on the animals and when there's a whole room on cultural stuff you just see people streaming past it to get to the next animals.


EDIT: Just wanted to add that I find your point I've emboldened particularly strange - non-animal exhibits are usually your favourites (if done right)? Don't animals get a look in at any point?
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  #12
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Old 31-07-2010

The point of culturally themed exhibits is not, I believe, to increase attendance. Rather, it is part of the evolving nature of zoos themselves and part of their increased educational and entertainment focus. It may seem paradoxical, but that which makes it more educational can also make it more interesting and fun. And while you often see people streaming past it to get to the animals, I see many people reading the signs and explaining them to their pre-reading children. Also, just because someone doesn't stop and savor an exhibit doesn't mean that it does not contribute to the ambiance and to their ultimate feelings about an area.

Quote:
I'd much rather they were done properly by a dedicated museum than half-heartedly (or even expensively!) in an attraction that people visit primarily to see animals.
I think that the evolving nature and mission of zoos is bringing them closer to being a type of museum all the time. I personally feel that the ultimate zoo would be a museum dedicated to life, i.e., think the most immersive, gorgeous, geographically correct exhibits with museum quality displays of relevant artifacts and signage. It's like the debate about signage, are signs irrelevant because many choose not to read them? NO! Likewise, would a museum-like level of detail and information be wasted because many would run past the artifacts? Once again, NO! I believe zoos could do a much better job at all 3 prongs of their mission (or maybe I should say my idea of their mission): conservation, education, and entertainment, if they interpreted the entire context of animals' lives, not just their habitats.

And yes, I ADORE ASDM.
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  #13
Old 31-07-2010

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Originally Posted by Maguari View Post
Just wanted to add that I find your point I've emboldened particularly strange - non-animal exhibits are usually your favourites (if done right)? Don't animals get a look in at any point?
I should explain myself. I'm still talking about ZOO exhibits -- zoo exhibits with both a cultural theme plus (of course) animals. What I especially love is when a zoo makes me feel like I'm in another place -- I'm in Kenya, on an African safari, looking for the Big Five; or I'm on the edge of the Amazon jungle, there to see the wondrous rain forest creatures; or I'm Down Under in Australia, there to see the wide world of unique Aussie animals.

Here in the US, there are particular exhibits which genuinely give me these very realistic exotic feelings. At the Kansas City Zoo's Africa exhibit area, while walking around seeing one of the greatest varieties of African animals, you also encounter huts, signs, and other reminders that scream "This is Africa, not Kansas City!" Over there in Europe, Spain's Bioparc Valencia gives you the same realistic feel. At the Jacksonville Zoo, you can get this same exotic experience -- traveling to South America to see it's animals and culture side-by-side. A realistic Asian experience is available at Utah's Hogle Zoo.
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  #14
Old 31-07-2010

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Originally Posted by ANyhuis View Post
(...) you also encounter huts, signs, and other reminders that scream "This is Africa, not Kansas City!" Over there in Europe, Spain's Bioparc Valencia gives you the same realistic feel. At the Jacksonville Zoo, you can get this same exotic experience -- traveling to South America to see it's animals and culture side-by-side. A realistic Asian experience is available at Utah's Hogle Zoo....(...)
I heard no such screaming in Kansas City Zoo. What I "heard" or rather, saw, were building and decoration elements romanticized & conventionalized according to the idealised image most civilians of the 1st World have of for them still exotic places such as Africa, Asia etc.-and I have seen similar elements in other institutions worldwide, may it be Hanover, Jihlava or Beijing.
For anyone who has actually been to these very exotic places, the whole thing looks merely like a sugar-coated, sometimes all too artificial facade. (Although I have to confess that I sometimes favour the facade over its parasite-filled, dangerous and climate-wise challinging real counterpart ).

All that is nothing new. Fads come and go, also in the zoo world. Everyone who has ever been to Antwerp zoo or seen picture of the old ostrich or old elephant house at Berlin zoo knows that such pseudo-ethnic design was trendy in the 19th and 20th century, and is, like every fad, bound to reappear once in a while. The only difference nowadays is that some people feel offended by its ethnic aspects, comparing it to Hagenbeck's historic Völkerschauen and said "human zoos". However, this is the same kind of people who would complain if zoos depicted a realistic "African" or "Asian" setting...including disease-transmitting mosquitos, monsoon rain, wait-a-bit thorns and overboarding kleptocracy.

The current example appears to be another storm in a teacup, just like in the mentioned Augsburg example, and will probably end in talk and nothing else.

It could be a good wake-up call for some zoo designers, though, to focus and spend less on pseudo-ethnic design elements and more on the real needs of animals and staff...
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  #15
Wink Blackduiker
Old 31-07-2010

I think Disney's Animal Kingdom does it best. Not only did I feel like I was on an African Safari, I was driven around by a bright, beautiful and intelligent Kenyan woman. Many of the staff were African. And you are presented with dignified culture, not stereotypes. San Diego's Wild Animal Park also does a decent job. Being African-American myself, I believe some just don't realize how many scars remain with a people, whose recent descendants were enslaved and only considered 2/3 human. Many still alive today who grew up in an extremely racist environment, like my wife's 98 year old grandmother, whom we are taking care of, born and raised in Louisiana back in 1912. But like another ZooChatter remarked, I visit zoos for the animals, along with well designed habitats that don't need to include huts and igloos. Though themed architecture doesn't bother me in the least. But if you really want a taste of the world's towns and villages without actually touring the world, I recommend Disney's Epcot Center. A fabulous international experience!
 


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