Challenging the idea of theme space as an essentially American phenomenon

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

This book tells the story of one of the greatest showmen in the history of zoos and circuses. Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913) may not be well-known today, but his name was once as evocative and celebrated as that of P. T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill. In the late nineteenth century, when zoos were being built at a rate of almost one per year, the Hamburg-based entrepreneur was hailed as the world’s leading supplier of wild animals. The infrastructure that enabled him to capture and trade wild animals also became a platform for Hagenbeck’s venture into public entertainments, beginning with his so-called “anthropological-zoological exhibition.” It was a high-sounding name for the practice of grouping together “exotic” humans and animals in the same space of display—a practice that soon became a regular attraction of world’s fairs.

Between 1874 and 1913, Carl Hagenbeck sponsored and exhibited as many as one hundred different troupes of “foreign peoples,” becoming the most important ethnographic showman of the period. And that was not all. In 1907, Hagenbeck unveiled his revolutionary Tierpark (or “animal park”) on the outskirts of Hamburg. Its unusual design fundamentally changed the way that live animals were displayed and observed by staging them in natural settings and so-called open enclosures (cage-less displays). Both of these practices would later be imitated by zoos across the board.

At the time, however, Hagenbeck’s park was not a zoological garden. It was an early theme park, combining live animal panoramas, ethnographic performances, native villages, moving pictures, mechanical rides, and merchandise—all themed around the exotic. Drawing on all this material, I show that Hagenbeck helped shape the preference of mass spectators for immersing themselves in themed environments, for physically plunging themselves into fantasy worlds of wild adventure.

More than just a descriptive account, Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments re-envisions the way in which themed environments have been made and experienced in history. Specifically, it fleshes out the dominant practice in the late nineteenth century, which was based on choreographing the material objects and living bodies (humans and animals) on display, while immersing spectators in the simulated environment. This part of the argument is made especially vivid by the book’s design: It is a large-format volume with more than eighty illustrations—maps, drawings, paintings, postcards, photographs, film images, and advertising posters—fourteen in color.

“’Anthropological-zoological exhibition’ was a high-sounding name for the practice of grouping together ‘exotic’ humans and animals in the same space of display—a practice that soon became a regular attraction of world’s fairs.”

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.

May 4, 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.

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.

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.)

“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.”


I hope to challenge and revise the whole idea of theme space as being an essentially American phenomenon, which begins with Disneyland and goes into other theme parks, theme restaurants, shopping malls, and so on. Theme space has a history, and it has been imagined and constructed in many different ways. In the late nineteenth century, it was defined by the wide-scale collection and physical transport of materials to the spectator, as evidenced by Hagenbeck’s live animal environments and ethnographic performances. In this case, themed environments were built with objects and bodies that had literally been imported from other parts of the globe, to be arranged, transformed, and exhibited in public. Some members of the audience were clearly aware that the experience of vicarious travel, which they found to be so exciting, was only made possible by the actual movement of the surrounding objects, animals, and people on display. The main difference between themed environments of today and their nineteenth-century predecessors is the emphasis on the signs and traces of physical presence within the space of display, as opposed to the contemporary fascination with “virtual reality.”

And yet the Hagenbeck material, which extends all the way from live animal environments and performances to early silent films, turns out to be extremely useful for addressing questions of change over time. It is the double nature of Hagenbeck’s entertainments—as devoted to both the material world of collecting and the imaginary world of storytelling—that makes it rich ground for rethinking the origin of theme space.

© 2009 Eric Ames
Eric Ames Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments University of Washington Press 376 pages, 8 1/2 x 10 inches ISBN 978 0295988337

Eric Ames is an associate professor in the Germanics Department and an adjunct in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. He teaches courses on film history, visual culture, and German cultural studies, and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. Currently, he is writing a book about the filmmaker Werner Herzog—with special focus on Herzog’s documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World.

Cover Interview of
May 4, 2009