- Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Sadiah Qureshi
The history of the display of human subjects is a topic that has been examined from a variety of disciplinary approaches. Thanks to the seminal work of Richard Altick, Robert Rydell, Paul Greenlaugh, Benedict Burton, Peter H. Hoffenberg, and Annie Coombes—to name just [End Page 898] a few—there exists a rich and extensive literature on the exhibition of human beings for commercial, educational, scientific, and political purposes.1 In this impressive and important contribution to the field, Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates that we still have much to learn from and about the troubling practice of exhibiting living human subjects, a form of popular entertainment that reached its height during the late Victorian era but continued into the twentieth century. Acknowledging the absence of any comprehensive study of human displays for the first half of the nineteenth century, Qureshi’s Peoples on Parade spans the entire 1800s, beginning with Britain’s first celebrity exhibit, Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as the “Hottentot Venus,” and concluding with Savage South Africa, a lavish spectacle held at Earl’s Court in 1899. By studying a variety of display genres, from modest entrepreneurial ventures to enormous imperial exhibitions, Qureshi successfully illustrates how the actual display of human performers and the meanings ascribed to those performances changed throughout the nineteenth century, taking into account the impact of Britain’s increasingly diverse urban population, its evolving commercial “show culture,” and the new technologies of communication and travel.
In addition to this thematic study of human exhibitions, Qureshi uses this broad chronology to challenge the existing consensus among some scholars that human displays were of little scientific significance. Because the performances perpetuated Western, often imperial, ideas of superiority and reinforced theories of racist and evolutionary hierarchies made current by the new disciplines of ethnology and anthropology, previous studies have underestimated their scientific relevance, dismissing the shows as a combination of misguided (and therefore bad) science and sensational entertainment. Although the author does not deny that the shows of displayed peoples are imbued with racist and imperialist ideologies, she argues that Victorian scholars used displayed [End Page 899] peoples as convenient research subjects for developing theories about race, humanity, ethnicity, and evolution. Asserting that all scientific knowledge has a cultural context, Qureshi posits that “the associations between displayed peoples, imperialism, and ethnic difference are neither inherent nor self evident,” but instead are “both created and maintained.” This important distinction frames the central questions of this admirable study, which examines the complex processes required to produce, promote, perform, interpret, and manage human shows across nineteenth-century Britain.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Street Spectacles,” posits that the racial and class diversity of the urban streets helped cultivate a potential clientele for the display of foreign peoples while the observations of Victorian writers were instrumental in this process. The urban ethnography of nineteenth-century journalists, like those of Henry Mayhew, who described London as teeming with various forms of uncivilized humanity, helped to create “a culture of visual inspection,” one that converted the streets into a form of entertainment and instruction, but also fostered a consumer market for displayed peoples that capitalized on the observation of human difference. However, the author asks, if the urban streets were human spectacles unto themselves, what then was so remarkable about the displays of foreign peoples, and why were they so commercially successful? According to Qureshi, it was advertising and creative entrepreneurship that made all the difference. The rising popularity of human displays coincided with the expansion of advertising. Victorian showmen used the developing technologies of mass promotion—playbills, posters, photography, popular lectures, and the illustrated press—to convert passing curiosity into tangible profits by offering patrons a closer inspection that was not possible in the streets. In her close reading of promotional materials, Qureshi notes that the conventions of Victorian travel writing directly influenced the text of exhibition programs, incorporating racialist stereotypes...