Friday, January 1, 2010

Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments

Carl Hagenbeck's Empire of Entertainments.

Eric Ames

Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

When the name of Carl Hagenbeck comes up these days, it's most often in reference to his innovations in the design of zoos -- and justly so, as he was certainly the first to place animals in realistic-seeming environments. His other accomplishments, however, were far more varied -- and in certain aspects troubling -- than that. He was an early, and persistent exhibitor of humans from exotic lands; his built environments were modelled not on the actual places the animals lived, but on massive panoramas and cycloramas in which a daub of paint was as good as an iceberg; he was a pioneering maker of wildlife films, but the animals in them were most often shot and killed on camera; and perhaps most significantly, he is the only one of many such exhibitors from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose establishment -- the Hamburg Tierpark -- still stands.

Eric Ames' remarkable new study is the first full-length account of Hagenbeck's career in English. It's also the first study in any language to consider his life's work in the context of our modern understandings of zoology, anthropology, and visual culture. It's lucidly written, in a manner that will delight both the specialist and the casual reader, and it's amply illustrated and beautifully designed. It also reveals some very troubling chapters in the history of zoos and exhibitions, including unexpected connections -- between zoos, panoramas, and early film -- and uncomfortable juxtapositions, such as Hagenbeck's placing human and animal exhibits side-by-side, or his "safari" films. And yet we must not be too quick to condemn such entertainments, for as Ames makes increasingly clear as the book progresses, this is also our history -- the history of our curiosity, our demand to see the wonders of the natural world, and of our own long-held yet half-articulated assumptions about the function of cultural spectatorship.

Ames begins by laying out the territory, carefully articulating the history of 'themed spaces,' and of their rise in the age of industrial expansion and world population growth. His account is clear and fluid, drawing effectively on Foucault and Baudrillard without ever, even for a moment, descending into theoretical gobbledegook. He makes fascinating connections and contrasts between the cultural "museum" -- at which, by its very nature, the actual living subjects of its displays are absent -- and the ethnographical show, in which the presence of those very subjects -- however we may regard the ethics of such displays today -- guaranteed their authenticity. Hagenbeck's genius, as Ames describes it, was in realizing that the authenticity of his themed spaces depended on the seamless linkage between the scenic evocation of place and the presence of its animal and human "inhabitants."

The centerpiece of this progression lies in the history of Hagenbeck's "Eismeer" or 'Sea of Ice' panorama. Originally, much like the managers of other travelling menageries, Hagenbeck made do with simple flat painted backdrops to add whatever scenic elements might emphasize an animal's exotic origins. These were as generic as in any circus or carnival, and as a result added little to the perception of authenticity. Hagenbeck made his first innovation by employing moving panoramas, which added a narrative element missing in such flat panels, and grouping animals together by their region of origin. But with the enormous living panorama he designed for his Tierpark, he outdid himself and by old craft created new art -- new enough that, like Robert Barker's original panorama design in 1796, Hagenbeck had it patented.

The patent diagram is reproduced in Ames's book, and a colored detail serves as its frontispiece. Here we see the spectator -- a man with a bowler hat and a cane -- actually thrust in among the environment upon which he gazes. Just beyond him, past a low barrier of ice and stone, seals frolic in an artificial lagoon. Nearby, a flock of penguins wanders about, and an "Eskimo" stands beside his wooden hut. On the next tier, behind a trench hidden from view, polar bears stroll about a second lagoon, while at the highest point, mountains of ice and snow loom over the entire scene. Combining stage ideas such as false perspective with the blending of painted and built environments common in cycloramas of the era, Hagenbeck's exhibition used animals, humans, and a built environment to amplify each others' authenticity. Of course, we all know that there are no Eskimos in Antarctica, nor any penguins in the Arctic -- but nevertheless the presence of one increases the felt authenticity of the other.

There were, of course, trade-offs in Hagenbeck's system. The deep trenches and barriers needed to separate the seals from their natural predators had themselves to be obscured, so that their artifice would not undercut the scene. The "Eskimos" in this arrangement were actually the animals' trainers and keepers in northern costume (their seal-skin coats had to be replaced with cloth replicas after it became clear that the polar bears regarded anything in a seal's skin as a sort of seal). Actual Eskimos were also a part of Hagenbeck's exhibitions, but he could not risk putting them in the midst of his specially-built enclosure. Instead, along with various groups of African tribespeople, they were placed on opposite sides of a nearby lagoon, where the notion of the 'meeting of extremes' was the dominant trope, and geographical difference rather than similarity drove the spectacle.

The arrangements necessary to secure both animals and humans for display are also detailed by Ames, and here the story is a far grimmer one. Like many other zoo and circus managers, Hagenbeck relied upon a number of agents and intermediaries to secure living creatures for his exhibits, keeping his own hands clean, metaphorically speaking. And yet of course it was the knowledge that Hagenbeck would pay handsomely that created this secondary market. In Labrador, there was a roaring trade in Inuit, with several different entities competing for this human market. The pressure on the indigenous population was so great that, early in 1911, the legislature of Newfoundland and Labrador explicitly banned the taking of Inuit for human exhibition. The ban did not, however, much deter Hagenbeck, who found other means to secure "Eskimo" performers. In November of 1911, he hired the troupe led by John C. Smith and Esther Enutseak for his "Nordland" exhibition, happily taking on a group with nearly twenty years experience on the "show" circuit, many of whose younger members had been born on the road and had been no closer to the North Pole than London.

Ames does a capable and thorough job of documenting Hagenbeck's activities both in acquiring new 'specimens' and designing new exhibits, no mean feat considering the variety of his shows and the length of his career. Remarkably, his business emerges as one of the key links between older pre-cinema technologies such as the panorama, and the emerging world of film. Hagenbeck realized early on that his menagerie could serve more than one purpose; like his contemporary, American zoo and studio owner William Selig, he knew that film audiences would pay good money to see authentically-staged dramas featuring "wild" animals alongside humans. And yet, unlike most of Selig's animal films, Hagenbeck's great theme was not simply a journey through the perils of the jungle but the "hunt" -- and a hunt to the death was the biggest draw of all. To this end, he chose animals from his park that were old, or infirm, and thus could be considered expendable. The directors then staged elaborate scenes, whether in the Arctic or the "African" jungle, in which, just as in his park, some natural barrier -- a river, say -- would keep his human actors safe until the final, decisive moment. And then, while the cameras rolled, the great animals would be shot and killed, demonstrating once more the dominance of Man over Animal.

Hagenbeck's films -- among which was one"Eisbärjagd," which featured the death of a polar bear, along with sea lions, seals, and walruses, have mostly, unfortunately, been lost; only one, Løvejagten -- a Danish film made with two lions purchased from Hagenbeck -- survives, but it is difficult to see. Nevertheless, the connection between the kind of authenticity conveyed by a zoo with a "natural" setting and that conferred by a film, is clear enough. Hagenbeck's business, in this sense, forms a vital evolutionary link between both the old panoramas and menageries,through early zoos, to modern entertainments such as the iMAX film, The Serengheti.

Remarkably, Hagenbeck's zoo is currently undertaking a revival and reconceptualization of its original "Eismeer" panorama, dubbed the neue Eismeer, which is presently under construction. Once again combining old and new technologies, it will, when complete, be the first new outdoor display of its kind in more than a century.

Ames's book recounts all these histories with verve and detail, and his text is richly annotated with images, and supported with copious notes. Few of these images have been reproduced outside of Germany, and many have only recently been discovered. Ames has worked closely with the current archivist of the Hamburg Tierpark, and his research in other world archives brings unparalleled depth to a history which was, in the past, very poorly documented and ill-understood. Ames's book casts a rich and provocative light into this previously unrecounted history, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the human fascination with the exotic, the history of zoos, the history of film, or of cultural spectacles of all kinds.