The Lifelike Dead: Staging the Nonhuman in Colonial Nairobi
Abstract

Abstract:

This essay reads natural history in colonial Kenya as a set of performative and theatrical practices. Big-game hunting, paleoanthropology, and “tribal” ethnology all served the larger purpose of theatricalizing the legitimacy of colonial governance and performatively extending its reach into the so-called bush. Increasing colonial dominion over the East African wilderness had the effect of museumifying the landscape, reducing it to a space for (white) edification and enjoyment. The Coryndon Memorial Museum in Nairobi, the premier destination for natural-historical specimens in East Africa at the time, served as a kind of museum-within-a-museum, and for that reason is the principal object of analysis in this essay. The culture of collecting and display enshrined at the Coryndon made the nonhuman—taxidermied and plaster-cast animals, pre-human hominin fossils, and “tribal” artifacts—the principal actors in what Jane Desmond has called a “theater of the dead.” Building on her work alongside Jennifer Parker-Starbuck’s histories of animal taxidermy, Una Chaudhuri’s theories of zooësis, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s analysis of “detachment,” the essay suggests that the display of “the lifelike dead” raised political and epistemological questions that were at the very heart of the colonial project. For the Coryndon’s white curators, the chief virtue of staging the nonhuman, particularly before a nonwhite audience, was disciplinary, in that it helped to maintain the distinctions between human and less-than-human that underwrote colonial governmentality and legitimated white rule. In this light the Coryndon emerges as a key site for conflicts over the nature of the human itself that would go on to structure the subsequent anti- and postcolonial politics of East Africa.


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