«He bought some curious animals and money was raining». Reification of animals in traveling menageries in 19th century Geneva

In the nineteenth century, colonial expansion and industrialization transformed and shaped European societies. Animals were among the ‹commodities› transported across continents via newly established global commercial networks. Specimens brought to Europe were kept in a variety of spaces, public or private, for Europeans’ consumption.

This presentation will analyse one such place: traveling menageries, an entertainment which grew in popularity in Europe at that period. This leisure activity had a role in constructing national and imperial identities. Despite Switzerland not having colonial territories in other continents as the imperial nations surrounding it, Geneva saw a similar development of animals shows.

This phenomenon is explained by the essentially mercantile nature of the menagerie business. The sudden influx of animals considered ‹exotic› for the European public led individuals to capitalize on the recent availability of non-indigenous specimens, motivated by potential profit. The presentation focuses on the multiple processes of reification of ‹exotic animals›, transformed through various (and in cases cumulative) ways by shows owners, scientists and spectators to create value. Analysis of the animal shows and surrounding discourse conveys the utilitarian vision of animals that was predominant in nineteenth century Genevean society.

The commercial exploitation of nature, just as the scientific classification and the dramatization of man’s power through taming acts, taking place within the menagerie space reflects man’s desire to control and dominate nature in the fast changing geography of the nineteenth century.