I’ve just been in Paris on a brief jolly and I decided to visit somewhere a little off the tourist trail while I was there. And so, on a cold cold February morning, in the cold cold rain, I went in search.
Out to the east of the city is the Bois de Vincennes and on the western side of the park is Le Parc Zoologique de Paris, the zoo. On the far south-eastern side are the crumbling remains of a rather shameful period in Paris’ history; Le Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, the human zoo.
Set up as a part of the Colonial Exhibition of 1907, this garden contained examples of architecture, horticulture and people from French colonial lands; people from the Sudan and Congo, Madagascar and Indochina, Morocco and Tunisia, all living in villages and pavilions representing their cultures and countries, set up in a park in Paris. They lived here while visitors paid to come and look at them. Literally a human zoo.
This wasn’t a niche entertainment. During the six months of the exhibition at least a million people visited and this site was just one of many around Europe displaying the exotic ‘fruits’ of colonial domination. The unfortunate exhibits, who had been brought from their homes to France for display, were highly susceptible to diseases and infections to which they had absolutely no resistance, and so suffered a high mortality rate.
Looking round the remains of this great exhibition, it’s possible to identify examples of the buildings and decorative elements from different French colonial lands but they’re mostly just wrecks. Visitors are welcomed by the remains of the oriental gateway that featured prominently on souvenir postcards. Now, of course, it’s all moss and peeling paint.
Walking around, I could just catch glimpses of other elements of the formerly smart, bold exhibition; the expression of French colonial pride. Now it’s all half-hidden in the undergrowth, increasingly overgrown with ivy and moss and brambles.
Many of the buildings are fenced off, obviously unsafe.
There are also several memorials to people killed in various colonial conflicts, and the information in the newer signage dotted about, is mostly about the site’s use for hospital and convalescent accommodation during these conflicts.
Apparently, the authorities in Paris were in a bit of a quandary about the site, Restoring it might be seen as exhibiting pride in this unsavoury episode from the past. Pulling the whole place down may be seen as equally unfortunate, as if they are somehow trying to hide the truth about colonial attitudes. And so, for many years, the gardens were just left. A couple of the old pavilions have been renovated to be used for exhibitions and events and the aforementioned signed installed, but it’s all quite low key.
Modern Paris celebrates its internationalism in different ways these days and exhibiting humans is now considered unacceptable. Unless it’s on ‘reality TV’ that is. Then it’s fine.
The nearest RER station is Nogent-sur-Marne.