The Geographies of Animal Display

By citing various modes of animal exhibitions, this article demonstrates some of the ways in which animals have been represented in the circuits of natural history.

Kartik Chugh


Reliance Industries recently announced that they are establishing what they claim to be the world’s largest zoo in Jamnagar, Gujarat. On display would be more than a hundred species of birds and animals from around the world. The private zoo which would be called “Greens Zoological, Rescue & Rehabilitation Kingdom” would aim to contribute to the conservation of wildlife. 

Recently, zoos have emerged as spaces wherein distant animals from the wild are transplanted into enclosures and pools for the consumption of urban spectators (Philo and Wilbert, 2000). The act of displaying animals is not a new phenomenon, however, but can be traced back to the emergence of urbanized civilizations between 3000 and 1500 B.C. During this time, the royalty and the privileged had the wealth and time to do and buy what they wanted. The expansion of foreign trade, the availability of exotic items, and the development of aesthetic sensibilities allowed wealthy individuals an opportunity to build reserves and collect animals (Kisling, 2001). 

Over the centuries, the representations of animals have changed form. In this article, I attempt to demonstrate some of the ways in which animals have been exhibited, and represented in natural history. From Roman amphitheatres to royal menageries, from museums to traditional zoos, the geographies of animal display have transformed and yet, as I’ll argue, there are a lot of similarities between these modes of representation. These modes of exhibition have the potential to provide a revealing perspective on human culture; a perspective that can take many geographical forms (Kohlstedt, 1996), and intertwine with the themes of power, imperialism, and anthropocentrism.

The Roman Games

After the foundation of the Roman Republic in 810 BC, the spectacle of Roman games was instrumental to the social and cultural life of the Romans. These games were staged in monumental amphitheatres (like Coliseum) throughout the empire for around 900 years. On display were ‘beastly’ animals of distant lands, trained to perform highly choreographed acts. These performances took a variety of forms. In one of the highly anticipated acts, the arenas were remodelled to mirror forests where animal hunts were staged. In another act, hungry animals were set against each other to combat. But what arrested people’s imagination and aroused the greatest excitement in masses were the animal combats (venationes) where animals were pitted against trained gladiators (bestiarii). Interestingly, the gladiators themselves were usually state criminals who were regarded “closer in status to the beasts they fought than to the civilised spectator” (Whatmore and Thorne, 1998). 

Chariot racing was one of the main events in Roman games.
Source: The New York Public Library

The wild animals which performed in the Roman amphitheatres were captured or hunted in the unruly terrains of Africa. The inhospitable and harsh African landscape was imagined to be the perfect breeding ground for these beasts. Once captured, these animals would endure weeks of an arduous journey back to the Roman cities. They would then be mobilized to either the private collections of the royalty or to the animal training schools where, by the use of whip, starvation and torture, they would be disciplined to perform in arenas.   

Menageries and Museums 

During the renaissance, an interest in natural history was fermenting within the urban elite. By the end of the 15th century, many princes and naturalists were maintaining private collections of caged animals or menageries, and cabinets of natural specimens. These displays became symbols of royal status, and one’s accumulated wealth. More exotic the animal in the collection, the more one could boast about the dangerous expeditions undertaken to acquire it  (Findlen, 1996). Many collectors attempted to acquire all known species into their menageries. Menageries thus became the microcosm where nature was re-enacted and re-created. 

By the end of the 17th century, menageries were well established throughout the world. While previously, only a handful of privileged aristocrats could support animal collections, now these numbers were growing. 

Menageries were one of the principal curiosities in the British Metropolis (1808).
Source: The New York Public Library

As Britain expanded its imperial reach during the Victorian era, one can observe an upsurge in the popularity of natural history among the general public. Hunting exotic trophies along with the collection of zoological specimens were part of the thriving popular culture of animal exhibitions. The print culture popularised the literature and images of hunting in Britain, where the hunter was depicted as manly, brave, and heroic, upon which the empire depended.  

As noted by Ryan (2000), the acts of animal display and exhibition were also instrumental in the colonial discourse as they conveyed imperial reach and dominion over colonial land, people and nature. The animals hunted in far off lands were carefully preserved by the means of taxidermy. The art of taxidermy had the power to produce nature by capturing not just the animals “in their supposedly natural attitudes”, but also their wildness. The stuffed yet exotic and wild animals were displayed to curious masses by the means of exhibition. The animals shot in colonial Africa became ‘domesticated’ when displayed in the new public spaces back home. Museums, therefore, became budding spaces that replicated colonial frontiers and where distant wild animals were reproduced and reawakened to new life.

Traditional Zoo

The genealogy of the traditional zoo can be traced back to private menageries in the Renaissance era. In the early 1800s, as natural history became more popular, a shift can be observed from private menageries to public ones. To begin with, these menageries were supported by societies via membership fees and later by the general public. In 1825, the Zoological Society of London made a proposal to establish a Zoological Park. The proposal emphasised the need to create a modern ‘scientific’ establishment for the purpose of research and education and not just “vulgar” admiration (Kinsley, 2001).  And with that came a shift towards the classical zoos. Menageries of that time began to call themselves Zoological gardens. Zoos became more fashionable since they were considered to be managed professionally, and since they promoted science and education and not entertainment.

In 19th century Europe, the displacement of animals from ‘unruly’, wild spaces to the ‘disciplining’ grounds of the zoos was significant as it represented the mastery of cultured man over savage nature, of the civilised city over rural, and dominion of reason, logic, and order over nature’s wilderness. As argued by Davies (2000), it is this geographical displacement and decontextualisation of animals that enacts exotic value to certain animals and makes them appealing to the audience. 

A cigarette card depicting a lion and lioness in London Zoo. Note how the design of the zoo enclosures is dominated by bars and cages.
Source: The New York Public Library

The structure and function of zoos have evolved over time. To begin with, zoos were sites of animal collection. Over time, they established themselves into scientific institutions where captive animals could be studied, and developments in natural history and taxonomy could be furthered. In colonies, zoos served a slightly different purpose. Here, zoos were utilised for the introduction, acclimatization, and breeding of animals from England. By the end of the 19th century, as scientific support and funding for zoos declined, the function of the zoo shifted to produce a spectacle. From being exclusive spaces ‘for the experts’, zoos gradually evolved into establishments designed to display animals for the public. As Gruffud, (2000) has pointed out, the developments in visual technologies and architecture in the early 20th century aided in modernizing the animal spectacle. During this time, the design of the zoo enclosures shifted from that of bars and cages to that of bar-less moated enclosures. Prior to this, zoos were designed naturalistically where enclosures attempted to reproduce the natural habitats of animals they contained. The new geometric approach, however, aimed to present animals to the audience dramatically. The enclosures using this approach were designed in a manner that made animals more ‘visible’ to the spectators. In other words, the geometric architecture of the enclosure can be thought of as a theatre that staged the performance of animals.

Using a geometric approach, Lubetkin in 1930 designed the modernist Penguin Pool in London Zoo. Image credits: diamond geezer

More recently, the institutions of zoos have remodelled themselves as a refuge for animal conservation. The news of the world’s largest zoo, from where I started this piece, exemplifies this trend. As argued by Davies (2000), this relatively recent layer of biodiversity and conservation further “shapes the process through which zoos seek to enrol, mobilise and position nature.”   

Between the various modes of animal display that I’ve cited in this article, there are a lot of important overlaps emerging. For instance, the animals on exhibit have been trained to perform in specific ways so as to create a spectacle. Just like animals were trained and coerced to perform their part in the highly choreographed acts in the Roman games, traditional zoos can also be thought of as amphitheatres where animals are disciplined to behave, breed and live in specific ways. Similarly, the art of taxidermy allowed for the reproduction of animals to new life. When displayed in natural history cabinets and museums, these ‘domesticated’ animals produced a spectacle. 

Another important similarity is how animals in exhibit accrue value. In all modes of representation, it is the geographical displacement and decontextualisation of certain animals from their native habitats, that makes them ‘exotic’. Similarly, their construction of ‘wildness’ hinges on their spatial mobilisation from the hostile colonial landscapes. 

As I have shown in this article, the animal representations in the circuits of natural history have been varying, but the geographical relationship between these modes of representation, as argued by Davies (2000), have largely remained unaltered. With the new advancements in visual technologies, one can further think about novel ways in which animals are now represented. In my next article, I’ll attempt to do just that. By citing various modes of visual technologies, I’ll try to uncover some of these novel geographies of animal display. 

———–

References 

Findlen, P. (1996). Courting Nature. In Jardine, N., Secord, J. A, & Spary, E. C. (Eds.). Cultures of natural history. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

Kisling, V. N. (2001). Zoo and aquarium history: Ancient animal collections to zoological gardens. CRC Press.

Philo, C., & Wilbert, C. (2000). Animal spaces, beastly places new geographies of human-animal relations. Routledge.

Ryan, R.J. (2000). ‘Hunting with the camera”: Photography, wildlife and colonialism in Africa. In Philo, C., & Wilbert, C. (Eds.). Animal spaces, beastly places new geographies of human-animal relations. Routledge.

Gruffudd, P. (2000). Biological cultivation: Lubetkin’s modernism at London Zoo in the 1930s. In Philo, C., & Wilbert, C. (Eds.). Animal spaces, beastly places new geographies of human-animal relations. Routledge.

Davies, G. (2000). Virtual animals in electronic zoos: The changing geographies of animal capture and display .In Philo, C., & Wilbert, C. (Eds.). Animal spaces, beastly places new geographies of human-animal relations. Routledge.

Whatmore, S., & Thorne, L. (1998). Wild(er)ness: Reconfiguring the Geographies of Wildlife. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 23(4), 435-454. doi:10.1111/j.0020-2754.1998.00435.x

Kohlstedt, S.G. (1996). Reflections on zoo history. In New worlds, new animals: From menagerie to zoological park in the 19th Century. ed. R.J. Hoage & W.A. Deiss, 3-7. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1906). The games of Trajan–a chariot race Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-5d74-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. (1808). The menagerie in the Tower Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-cac0-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. ion and Lioness ” Felis and Leo”. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7d22599a-9981-ab37-e040-e00a1806173e

Kartik Chugh
Kartik Chugh

Kartik is a research intern at CUES-NIPGR under project TIGR2ESS. He is interested in the political ecology, and geography of human-animal interactions. When not absorbed in the research work, Kartik enjoys cooking, and loves playing football.

Discover More

Leave a Reply