Human zoos: When real people were exhibits

A new exhibition in Paris looks at the history of so-called human zoos, which put people from foreign countries on display as article of curiosity.

Among the exhibits is an early portrait of a Tahitian man called Omai, who was brought to the court of King George III in London by the explorer Joseph Banks (though it was Captain Cook who brought Omai back to England after his second great voyage – one Banks missed due to a dispute over the build of the ship).

In his book The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes describes Omai as “quick-witted, charming and astute. His exotic good looks… were much admired in society, especially among the more racy of the aristocratic ladies.”

But describing this same portrait, Holmes adds: “It is not clear if [Omai] is Banks’ companion or his trophy.”


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