Eric Ames


On his book Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments

Cover Interview of May 03, 2009

A close-up

One aspect of the book will be of particular interest to American readers: the history of Wild West shows in Germany.  The story of Buffalo Bill, his Wild West, and its reception in England and France is of course very well known.  But the German episode is relatively unfamiliar, and much of this material remains unavailable in English.

When the Wild West arrived in Germany, around 1890, it was first received as a type of ethnographic exhibition, because that was the predominant practice and the defining category at the time.  Buffalo Bill was hardly the first to exhibit Native Americans in Germany.  There were many different “Indian” shows touring the country and vying for audiences throughout the 1880s.  A close look at this material suggests that the story of the Wild West in Germany is one of spectatorship and its unexpected consequences for ethnographic performance.  Reporting on the live display of Native Americans, commentators regularly invoked the names and works of popular writers, especially James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales.  To German audiences, the Wild West seemed to convert fictional characters into living tissue.  Rather than preserve the traces of peoples who were supposedly either dead or on the verge of dying, as ethnographic museums claimed to do, the shows were seen as giving “life” to figures that never even existed, such as Cooper’s Natty Bumppo.  What makes this move so interesting is that it was instigated by spectators, not by entertainers or publicists—who were initially surprised by and unprepared for such a creative interpretation of the shows.  In Germany, the unintended effect of the Wild West, for all its claims to history and “reality,” was the vivification of a fictional universe. A monumental set from Hagenbeck’s 1912 Egyptian Exhibition, “On the Nile.”  The photo depicts the Cliff Temple of Abu Simbel, the Great Sphinx, and the Pyramids of Giza — all in one place.  Spectators are visible at the foot of the temple’s facade.  (Courtesy of Archiv Hagenbeck, Hamburg.)

From there, I go on to explore some of the ways in which Hagenbeck responded to the Wild West and its phenomenal popularity by revising his own practice.  The upshot, I suggest, is a dramatic shift in ethnographic performance: from a “scientific” mode to one that was blatantly theatrical.  In this mode, native participants acted out fictional roles that were literally assigned to them, and spectators, for their part, were remarkably accepting of the show’s theatricality.  This is especially true of the exhibitions held between 1907 and 1914 at Hagenbeck’s Tierpark.  There, dramatic performances coexisted with native villages, mountainous landscapes, and other monumental sets.  The park created a fantasyland environment for live human and animal display, the sense of entering a magical world, where fictional stories of exotic adventure unfolded before the spectator’s eyes, where reality and fantasy seemed to intermingle.  Hagenbeck managed to hold the line on both issues.