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Title: Humans on Display: Reflecting on National Identity and the Enduring Practice of Living Human Exhibitions
Authors: Abbattista, Guido 
Issue Date: 2014
Publisher: EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste
Source: Guido Abbattista, "Humans on Display: Reflecting on National Identity and the Enduring Practice of Living Human Exhibitions", in: Guido Abbattista (edited by), “Moving Bodies, Displaying Nations National Cultures, Race and Gender in World Expositions Nineteenth to Twenty-first Century”, Trieste, EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2014, pp. 241-271
The study of living ethnic expositions in Italy in the nineteenth and twentieth century
allows some additional considerations on two main questions: the contributions of such
cultural phenomena to the creation of a colonial culture in Italy; and their continuity
in modified and adapted forms whereas current interpretations acknowledge their lesser
recurrence and relevance in periods of time marked by globalization and dramatic media
revolutions. The first point is analyzed with reference to the most recent historiography.
With regard to this the A. criticizes G. M. Finaldi’s 2009 thesis on the pervasiveness of a
mass colonial sensitivity in late nineteenth-century Italy on the basis of his comparative
studies on Italian and European living ethnic expositions and spectacles. These cultural
phenomena in the last decades of nineteenth-century Italy reveal weakness, superficiality,
improvisation and amateurish character especially if compared to analogous events in
France and Germany, with respect to which the Italian cases do not show comparable
racist features. Only on the eve of the Italian-Turkish War of 1911-1912 Italian
colonialism and its social-cultural expressions assumed very aggressive nationalistic,
expansionist and increasingly racist tones. This was the consequence, since the beginning
of the twentieth century and the resumption of Italian colonial programs in Africa after
the Adowa disaster in 1896, of the growth of a properly speaking colonial culture,
with the birth of colonial societies and institutes, the development of colonial socioeconomic,
geographical, statistical disciplines and of a scientific anthropological interest
in the study of submitted African peoples. These developments had consequences also
on the particular way the living exhibition of human colonial diversity continued to
occur, making those practices an occasion for publicising not an image of radical and
irreducible otherness, but rather a civilizing, assimilationist discourse. The second part of
this contribution tackles the question whether the living human exhibitions disappeared
in contemporary collective socio-cultural practices. It recalls several, recurring examples
after WWII of what could be termed the visual perception of anthropological difference in support of discourses radically different from the typical ones of the age of colonialism
and imperialism. The essay shows that the settings partly remained the same as
previously, as in the 1958 Brussels Universal Exposition, and partly changed radically
both in their physical locations and in their intended meanings. Several examples of
different nature – from commercial publicity to ethno-ecological advocacy, from mass
tourism to experimental performing arts – converge in giving support to the idea that
all historical ages create and rest on, or remember and reproduce plural visual, or ‘optic’
regimes of representation of human (and cultural) differences, thus suggesting how the
construction of (especially public) visual perceptions and representations directly derives
from or just implies the exercise of physical submission and acts as a device for reducing
to order and control the disturbing human diversities.
Type: Book Chapter
ISBN: 9788883035821
eISBN: 9788883034923
Appears in Collections:Moving Bodies, Displaying Nations. National Cultures, Race and Gender in World Expositions 19th to 21st Century

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