Issue 18, Past Issues, Reviews
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Peoples on Parade

Reviewed by Radhika Natrajan, University of California, Berkeley

Sadiah Qureshi. Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 392 pages.  

Sadiah Qureshi’s Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain presents an empirical challenge to more theoretically-oriented studies of Victorian exhibitionary practices. Surveying a century of metropolitan encounters with ‘other’ cultures, Peoples on Parade troubles accounts of hegemonic Victorian ideologies of ‘race’ and argues for the ways contingent historic circumstances shaped nineteenth-century demand for ethnographic performances, and consequently, ideas of human variety. Rather than a simplistic fetish of the primitive other, Qureshi argues there was a widespread, articulated engagement with displayed people. Importantly, it was ethnicity based in culture not biological racial dichotomy that framed nineteenth-century British understandings of human variety.

Qureshi urges her readers not to simply dismiss ethnographic exhibitions as exemplars of Victorian racism, but to understand both the contexts from which these shows emerged and the social worlds in which they circulated. She situates the emergence of human exhibitions in the cosmopolitan milieu of early nineteenth-century London. Reflecting the changing social conditions of an increasingly urban nation, a wealth of printed material emerged to educate Britons in ‘reading’ strangers.  Thus, stories and imagery of ethnic groups were widely circulated and this material shaped audience interest in and responses to exhibited peoples. Qureshi’s intervention here is to re-embed these shows in the social world of print culture, arguing that the popular engagement with ethnographic displays developed through this interest in reading character and culture from the human form.

If the strangeness of urban encounter fostered a mentality for reading human difference domestically, then Britain’s expanding imperial frontier drew attention to the peoples brought under the dominion of the crown. Entrepreneurs assembled exhibitions of San, Xhosa and Khoi Khoi people of southern Africa and Anishinabe and Bakhoje of British North America to satisfy a metropolitan appetite whet by the published accounts of travellers and newspaper stories of conflicts. Qureshi insists on the partial agency of these early performers—they wore their own clothing and displayed their own possessions, and they held various investments in travelling to London. As for their audience, Qureshi shows the ways they were attuned to cultural specificity and argued over the authenticity of various exhibited groups. Indeed, some audience members found the shows so compelling that they became intimate with travelling performers. Members of London’s fashionable society routinely held parties for visiting performers, inviting the scorn of commentators and satirical cartoons.

Ethnographic exhibitions not only held an allure to a public captivated by human difference, but also provided a space for the disciplinary development of anthropology. Qureshi argues against genealogical approaches to understanding ideas of race and the professionalization of anthropology, insisting instead on the larger ‘marketplace’ from which such ideas emerged.1  In the second half of the nineteenth-century, state-sponsored great exhibitions eclipsed smaller, privately organized performances. In this new format, human displays became even more accessible to a popular audience and also provided the space for British anthropologists to demonstrate their expertise and also to air competing views of human diversity. Anthropologists consulted on the human exhibitions, presented lectures in the halls, and generally took advantage of the large numbers of foreign people brought to the country for display to generate new ways of understanding human variety.

Increasingly, however, anthropologists came to believe that rigorous fieldwork needed to be intensive and cultural research performed in situ. While anthropologists looked beyond Britain for their research subjects, audiences demanded larger and larger spectacles of displayed peoples, creating a greater distance between performers and audiences, and bringing an end to an era when ethnographic shows combined popular interest with academic inquiry. Changing technology, including the growth of film, easier transportation, and the changing methodological standards in anthropology are all reasons cited for the end of the popular ethnographic exhibition.

Qureshi provides an extensive account of ethnographic exhibits, reading out from the shows themselves to expose the social world that buoyed audience demand for these displays. The originality of this book and the importance of its contribution lies in the way Qureshi brings together various strands of nineteenth-century British history: the changing social landscape of the metropole, the networks of empire, and the diffuse origins of scientific ideas. Qureshi’s insistence on the myriad intentions of showmen and performers, of the heterogeneity of attitudes towards human variety, and of the ways contemporary politics created demand for the display of certain ethnic groups effectively unsettles claims for a Victorian racial orthodoxy and contributes to making the displayed peoples a greater part of the story of these encounters.

While this monograph will be useful to scholars of nineteenth-century anthropology, exhibitionary practice, racial theory, and intercultural encounters, its particular challenge is for scholars of visual culture. Qureshi is writing against visual studies of race that scrutinize the image without rehabilitating its contexts. But here, she glosses over the performances themselves to create space for her discussion of the production of the exhibitions and their audiences. In this regard, the images lavishly reproduced in this book tease the reader and call out for interpretation.

We remain haunted by ideas of human variety formed during the era of European imperialism—simplistic impressions of the past frame our attitudes towards racism, reductive stereotypes perpetuate the victimization of racialized bodies, and cultural appropriations mask histories of dispossession. Qureshi’s study demands further histories of the visual economy of human variety that provide both extensive context and incisive visual analysis to better understand the entrenchment of difference in contemporary society.

Radhika Natarajan is a historian of Modern Imperial Britain. She will receive her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in December, 2013.

  1. In this, Qureshi joins a growing body of literature that expands the framework for understanding the development of scientific ideas through both their imbrication in older models and their embeddedness in more popular exchange. An excellent example that displaces the centrality of Darwin to nineteenth-century ideas of evolution: James Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001.

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