Zoo. Photos: Britta Jaschinski, text: Randy Malamud. (2/5)

Black-Footed (Jackass) Penguin, Zoo Series, London 1995. © Britta Jaschinski.

Randy Malamud writes:

Walking in the Zoo, walking in the Zoo.

The O.K. thing on Sunday is the walking in the Zoo.

So sang Victorian music-hall artist Alfred Vance – the Great Vance! – in 1870, appearing as a dandy London “swell” recounting his excursion to Regent’s Park.  The Fellows of the Zoological Society of London were not amused by his contribution of the word “zoo” to the lexicon, dismayed that the common monosyllabic moniker trivialized their importance.

“ZSL London Zoo,” as it calls itself today, opened to the Fellows of the Society in 1828, and to paying visitors from the public at large in 1847.  Some of its cages (or “enclosures,” in today’s softer euphemism of zoo discourse) date back to that era: the Raven’s Cage was erected in 1829, and the Giraffe House still in use was built in the 1830s.

Walking in the zoo today, one feels many shadows of the past: not just from the physical compound of Decimus Burton’s nineteenth-century architecture and grounds, but also from the historical legacy of imperialism.  The zoo was the project of Sir Stamford Raffles, imperialist extraordinaire.  His day job was subduing and plundering Java and Sumatra as a colonial agent for the East India Company.  As a hobby, he amassed animals during his exotic adventures, and this menagerie became the Zoological Society’s founding collection.

Zoogoers looking at these penguins’ silhouettes might recall the shadowy legacy of captive animal display as a celebration of Victorian triumphalism, offering spectators a taste, an amuse-bouche, of the British Empire’s global conquests.  The intent was to persuade the masses that they benefited somehow from the imperial enterprise – that is, “the white man’s burden,” achieving domination and ownership, imposing commercial, cultural, political, and ideological control upon all the world’s different regions and habitats and cultures.  The proletariat’s payoff was simply being able to see all these geographically diverse and exotic creatures and bask in the prowess that facilitated the exhibition of such a splendid corpus of animals in the heart of London.

Are the animals actually there at all, or are we just watching shadow-puppets playing out the nostalgic fantasy of imperial control?

© Randy Malamud.

Zoo by Britta Jaschinski is published by Phaidon.