Eric Ames


On his book Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments

Cover Interview of May 03, 2009

The wide angle

Although it focuses on a single figure, the book casts a wide net to cover many different forms of entertainment: zoos, circuses, panoramas, silent films, ethnographic villages, amusement parks, and Wild West shows.  The research phase took me to public museums and private archives not just in Germany, but throughout Europe and the United States.  At the time, I was suffering from a serious case of “archive fever,” which was actually a lot of fun.  Historically, though, it’s not surprising that the traces of Hagenbeck and his many endeavors are so widespread.  For one thing, the wild-animal trade, his primary business, was international by definition.  For another, Hagenbeck’s innovations were promoted and later imitated worldwide.

Around 1900, the very scope and scale of Hagenbeck’s enterprise became a source of fascination.  Reporters from various countries, who visited him in Hamburg, regularly commented on what today we’d call the “modernity” of his operation.  They were particularly impressed by the idea that he coordinated modern systems of transportation and communication (steamship, railway, telegraph), for such unusual ends.  One commentator imagined Hagenbeck literally telephoning his agents in Africa and Asia to capture and deliver so many lions and elephants, as if he were ordering bottles of wine.  The journalist was exaggerating, but the analogy is spot-on.  Hagenbeck did in fact cater to a burgeoning industry of leisure and mass consumption.  And he did so by exploiting not only the latest technologies, but also the expanding networks of commerce and power in the context of colonialism.  The Hagenbeck Company was a colonial enterprise whose range of operation extended well beyond the German colonies, spanning trade routes and communication lines that circled the globe.

Colonialism was also an important context for Hagenbeck’s entertainments.  The key example is the anthropological-zoological exhibition, which was also called a “foreign people show” (Völkerschau).  Hagenbeck assembled troupes of native performers from Australia, Chile, Egypt, India, Labrador, Mongolia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the United States, and many other places.  The troupes were all imported to Europe for the sole purpose of public display.  In each case, Hagenbeck staged the performers in “living habitats,” complete with live animals, ethnographic objects, and elaborate settings.  Habitat displays would later become a staple of natural history museums.

The “live” shows, however, raise a distinct set of questions: How were troupes of people assembled?  What were the terms and conditions of their employment?  Who were the native participants, and why would anyone join such a troupe?  What did they actually do while they were on display?  The live aspect is also precisely what separates those performances from a museum showcase.  Some readers might be surprised by the degree of casual interaction that took place between performers and spectators, especially along the threshold of display, which was open and sometimes crossed in both directions.

Hagenbeck’s approach to animal display was a further extension of the habitat idea.  And it was similarly based on the idea of testing the porous borders of the display.  The animal exhibits at his Tierpark famously eliminated barred cages and replaced them with trenches and artificial landscape.  Spectators thrilled to the new form, and the park soon averaged more than one million visitors per year.  This part of the Hagenbeck story is very familiar to people interested in the history of zoos.  But I personally don’t think it’s a zoo story—not during Hagenbeck’s lifetime, at least—and this is an argument that I make in the book.

When the Tierpark first opened, in 1907, it presented itself as opposed to the nineteenth-century zoological garden, at odds with that institution’s scientific organization, arrangement, and reason to be.  Zoo directors agreed.  Instead, I suggest, the park was originally conceived and built as a colossal outdoor panorama.  Hagenbeck actually referred to the entire park as “the panorama”—it was named as such in the first guidebook for visitors.  The individual displays were also called panoramas, and they were based on various prototypes—traveling panoramas—that Hagenbeck had developed and tested around 1900.

There are obviously many differences between the historical panorama (a painting in the round) and Hagenbeck’s version.  What most interests me, however, are the panorama’s techniques for creating powerful effects of sensory immersion, and the ways in which Hagenbeck appropriated and modified those techniques in the context of live animal display.  Another feature that distinguished the Tierpark was its effort to create a fictional universe, a tangible space of adventure for visitors to explore with their imagination as well as with their bodies.

Indeed, this is precisely what connects the park to the early cinema, much of which was also devoted to creating self-contained worlds of fantasy and exotic adventure.  Hagenbeck’s park is a forgotten site of early cinema.  In fact, it supported the production not only of early nonfiction (or “actuality”) films, but also—and this is the extraordinary part—a range of fiction films (or narrative features), including safari films, exotic adventures, and erotic melodramas.  At one point, the park was purchased by a major Berlin film company, and slated to become a vast outdoor studio complex.  This material suggests that the early cinema needs to be understood as, among other things, a special type of themed environment, one that was literally built on earlier forms and collections, even as it dismantled and rearranged these collections according to a different logic.