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Quai Branly Museum Debuts Human Slave Exhibit In Paris

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11/30/2011 06:29 AM ET

Quai Branly Humans - A new Paris exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum will take visitors through an experience in past history that is described as “man zoos” by Curator Lilian Thuram.

Thuram is now an anti-racism advocate and hopes to put humans on display that will make people question deep-held believes about the “other.”

“You have to have the courage to say that each of us has prejudices, and these prejudices have a history,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Thuram is an ideal public face for this unusual exhibit. A pensive black man with a ready smile, he has suffered racist insults on and off the field.

It’s a delicate undertaking for a museum: exhibiting offensive images without glorifying them, urging visitors to look closer and be repulsed.

The Quai Branly exhibit includes a projected silhouette of South African Saartje Baartman, known to 19th-century viewers as the Hottentot Venus, and a naked, backside-only photograph of another African woman with similarly generous buttocks.

Just when you think the exhibit is all about the past, a familiar venue jumps out: New York’s Coney Island features in an old “freak show” poster. Zulus were put on display at Buckingham Palace. Paris’ Jardin d’Acclimatation, today one of the French capital’s most popular amusement parks, once hosted human “zoos.”

“There is only one species of homo sapiens,” Thuram said, standing defiantly in front of a metallic contraption once used to measure skulls. It resembles a torture device or mutant sextant, and is accompanied by sculpted busts meant to illustrate racial distinctions.

Like much at the Quai Branly Museum — a spacious modern venue at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, former President Jacques Chirac’s ode to colonized cultures — this exhibit is under-lit. The somber atmosphere augments the feeling that this part of history was anything but enlightened.

The exhibit opens Tuesday and runs through June 3.

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