Zurich Zoo is accused of perpetuating colonialist clichés – rts.ch

Researchers from the universities of Lausanne and Zurich have just signed an article, published in The Anthrological Journal of European Cultures, in which they criticize an exhibition in the African section of the Zurich Zoo.

In 2020, Zoo Zürich opened an exhibition dedicated to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (reading frame). In particular, the most visited zoo in Switzerland has reconstructed a Kenyan village, including a school, a barber, an airfield and even a camping area. This village is supposed to embody life near the reserve and inform visitors about the challenges of tourism in the country

According to the authors of the article published in The Anthrological Journal of European Cultures in September last year – some of whom know the African continent from being born or working there – Zurich Zoo offers an overly biased view and maintains “clichés from an underdeveloped country”.

>> Review the TTC report on the “African savannah” at Zurich Zoo:

Zurich Zoo has recreated an African savannah, in close collaboration with Kenya / TTC (all taxes included) / 8 min. / June 21, 2021

“Not enough information”

The reserve offers, for example, safaris with five-star accommodation, while the exhibition presents a basic camp. More generally, Zurich Zoo also continues a “colonialist tradition,” that of human zoos, according to academics.

“Western countries have also used zoos to show people, and most often they came from Africa,” one of the authors of the article, Samantha Sithole, said Thursday in the Forum.

And the researcher at the Department of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Lausanne adds: “In addition, visitors who have never been to the African continent will return home with the idea that Africa looks like what is presented in this exhibition. Because the Zoo provides not enough information to create a connection between the school, the airfield, the camp, the hairdresser and the nature conservation history. “

The restaurant in the middle of The restaurant in the middle of the “Lewa Village” in Zurich Zoo. [ALEXANDRA WEY – KEYSTONE ]

No negative feedback

These criticisms surprise the director of Zurich Zoo Severin Dressen. He defends himself against any colonialist and racist intent: “So far, the village of Lewa has provoked only enthusiastic reactions, whether from the Kenyan embassy in Switzerland or the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which has visited places this year.”

And the zoo believes that it has done its utmost to faithfully reflect the reality of the place. “Our team went to the region, to Kenya, during the planning phase. The elements we gathered at the zoo are inspired by different places seen in the region,” explains the director.

Before you add: “The school, the airport or the hairdresser really does exist. But the village of Lewa, as it is called here, does not exist as such. It’s a bit like we had taken a Zurich house and a Bernese house, and we called it the German-speaking Swiss village! “

Difficult to practice representations

For Boris Wastiau, director of the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva, it is difficult today to practice representations, whether it is a matter of representing a culture, a place, a country or a city. “We risk being immediately confronted with a case of intent, regardless of the good intentions we may have at the base,” he stressed Thursday in Forum.

And the specialist points out that museums, especially museums of so-called ethnography, whose purpose was even to describe cultures and peoples, today have largely come out of this idea of ​​representing other cultures, other companies.

>> Boris Wastiau’s Interview in Forum:

How do you represent Africa in zoos without falling into racism?  Interview with Boris Wastiau [RTS]

How do you represent Africa in zoos without falling into racism? Interview with Boris Wastiau / Forum / 7 min. / December 23, 2021

Integrate social science

In their article, the authors come up with various recommendations to “decolonize” the exhibition and the upcoming ones. In particular, they invite management and zoos to integrate social science specialists into the teams of biologists, who are mainly represented in nature conservation.

A year ago, the authors, along with a dozen other academics, had already sent a letter to Zurich Zoo asking for a meeting. Management did not respond. But after the article is published, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) will meet with the authors next January.

Celine Fontannaz

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