Displaying Exotic Otherness: Does the Space Matter?


  • Ilze Boldāne-Zeļenkova University of Latvia


colonialism, exotic shows, freak shows, Latvia, live exhibitions, Riga, Russian Empire


At the turn of the 20th century, exotic shows as a form of displaying otherness gained wide popularity among various kinds of mass entertainment in Europe and the United States. Promoted professionally, the shows attracted public interest, combining the acquisition of knowledge with leisure. The freaks and people of non-European descent exhibited in different public spaces – zoos, parks, circus – not only demonstrated ‘nature’s errors’ and the diversity of human beings, but also the development of the human body and society within the framework of racial and evolutionary theories. The socio-economic and cultural context of each host country added that country’s own meaning to the messages of the shows. Exotic shows staged in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire inhabited by Latvians created a situation in which entertainment invented by modern colonialism took place in a territory directly affected by colonialism. Providing an insight into these shows, emphasizing exotic otherness mainly in Riga, the article seeks answers to the questions of who the audience was for these shows, and what kind of power relations, if any, between “living specimens” and spectators, and among spectators, one can deduce from the performance venue.


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