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The Face of the ‘Human Zoos’ | Review of “In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab” by France Rivet (2014) Polar Horizons Inc.

The concept of a ‘Human Zoo’ is a pretty daunting one to grasp. One is able to read many historical documents which show how  two Inuit families were lured from their homes in Labrador to tour Europe in the 1880s and perish in a Parisian hospital from Smallpox. But to put those documents into an order as so to put a face on the issue is not only a noble one, but one that is needed to improve the human condition in order for us to improve ourselves. And that is what France Rivet has done with In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab.

Page 15-16 Preface

Originally from the community of Hebron in Labrador, Abraham was a Christian and had been educated by the Moravian missionaries. He was literate, played the violin, spoke English and some German words. Among the 35,000 individuals who were exhibited in major European cities during the decades of ethnographic shows (1800-1958), Abraham is, to our knowledge, the only one who left a written testimony of his experience as an ‘exotic showpiece.’

Shortly after his death, the diary Abraham had written in Inuktituk, his mother tongue, was returned to Labrador. Brother Kretschmer, A Moravian missionary in Hebron, translated it to German. English and French translations were also produced by the Moravian Church who printed them in some of its publications. Then, the story fell into oblivion for a century.

In 1980, the tragedy of the Eskimos resurfaced when Canadian ethnologist Dr. James Garth Taylor discovered a copy of the German translation of Abraham’s diary in the Moravian Church archives located in Pennsylvania (United States). It is through the article Dr. Taylor published in 1981 in Canadian Geographic of the eight Labrador Inuit who died in Europe was unveiled to the 20th century public.

Over the next 25 years, a few individuals looked into this tragedy including German ethnologist Hilke Thode-Arora and Professor Hartmut Lutz and his students at the University of Greifswald in Germany. They studied Abraham’s diary and tallied it with the diary of Norwegian Johan Adrian Jacobsen, who recruited the Eskimos. They searched in the Moravian archives, in 19th century newspapers as well as in the archives of Johan Adrian Jacobsen and Carl Hagenbeck. Their work was published in English and German, in scientific journals or in book form.

But to this day, nobody had conducted research in Paris where five of the eight individuals died. No one had yet tried to answer the questions: What happened in Paris? Where were the Eskimos buried? They had to have left evidence of their presence in Paris? Where were these traces?

These are some of the questions I have been trying to answer since 2011

Rivet’s work first came aware to me on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary show The Nature of Things. The book combines elements of personal journal entries, news articles and scientific reports to give a unique perspective to Abraham’s journey to “civilization.” Rivet just puts in the right amount of comments in between the articles to give perfect insight to the story line.

Scanned image of Pages 150-151 “The Stay in Darmstadt and Nuggasak’s Death” from In The Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab by France Rivet.

The story doesn’t stop with the stop with the illness,  anguish and the deaths of the group in a strange land. Rivet documents how interests by the scientific community at the time decided to have some of the groups remains exhumed, studied and then displayed for the public.

Page 242-243 Three Eskimo Brain Casts

What happened to the casts since these studies were conducted more than 110 years ago? Following the dismantling of the Musée Broca in the middle of the twentieth century, we know that part of Théophile Chudzinski’s collection of plaster brain casts was acquire by the anatomy laboratory of the Faculty of Medicine, at the Université Paris Descartes, then headed by Professor André Delmais. For several years, Professor Delmas worked to restore and expand the collections of the Musée d’anatomie Orfila and to integrate it with those of the Musée Rouvière. The result of his work was the establishment of the largest French anatomy museum know as the Musées anatomiques Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière.

From 1953 until 2011, the Musées anatomiques Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière occupied the exhibition hall and the galleries on the eighth floor of the Faculty of Medicine, rue des SaintsPères in Paris. However, the museum was closed in 2011 and its collections were acquired by the Université de Montpellier 1. Currently the collection is now packed and conditioned for long-term storage until the new owner takes possession.

No doubt In the Footsteps of Abraham Ulrikab is just the start of France Rivet’s journey to bring dignity not only to memory of the group Ulrikab went to Europe with back in the 1880s but also respect to his descendants of today. This is an enlightening read and one that brings respect to an element to the human condition in a new way.

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