Quadrant: On zoo history, shame, and racial dynamics

The University of Minnesota Press has announced the launch of an online research archive (www.quadrant.umn.edu) and book series that stems from Quadrant, a new initiative to foster collaborative scholarship and revolutionize interdisciplinary publishing.

As part of the launch, the University of Minnesota Press blog this week is publishing Q&As with three Quadrant fellows who discuss their very interesting and diverse areas of research and offer insights into personal experiences with the program.

Today: Lisa Uddin, researcher at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia, on race and renewal in American zoos.
Tomorrow: Kelly Quinn, assistant professor in the American studies program at Miami University, on architect Hilyard R. Robinson’s contributions to place-making and public culture.
Thursday: Shiloh Krupar, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, on the politics of nature conservation and environmental memory at decommissioned military sites and nuclear facilities in the U.S.

Antelope House interior at the National Zoological Park, 1961. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Quadrant fellow and researcher at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia.

1) Can you talk briefly about your work on zoo history, shame and racial dynamics?

My research considers why people feel bad at and about the zoo. Amid its many delights and virtues, what is it about zoos that also provokes our sense of shame? Does it hinge on that uneasy exchange of looks between free humans and captive animals or, as art critic John Berger suggested, the impossibility of the exchange altogether? I am approaching these questions historically, recognizing that despite its continuities, the public zoo has changed much since its late-eighteenth-century beginnings, including the nature of our shame.

My focus on American zoos examines shame’s particular expressions and attempted remediations during the 1960s and 1970s. These decades of intense revitalization transformed many U.S. zooscapes from the so-called “Naked Cage” template of animal display – widely condemned – to early incarnations of the naturalistic, immersive enclosures that typify zoo design today. Zoos also began revitalizing their animal collections in this period, breeding select species whose populations in and outside of captivity were dwindling. This spatial and biological overhaul often gets discussed as an institutional turn to wildlife conservation. What is missing from these accounts is analysis of how the turn was also fully contemporary with the smoldering racial tensions that defined the urban experience in the long postwar period, and, more specifically, the shame that made cities unbearable for so many Americans. My research interprets the design, construction and promotion of endangered species exhibits and their inhabitants within this emotionally charged context. I am considering how zoo renewal variously reflected feelings about race and urban space, how it amplified those feelings, and how it offered channels for relief. The shame of American zoos, I argue, is part of the shame of American cities.

2) What is one critical question to have emerged from your research?

Because I see U.S. zoos as constitutive of the cities in which they are located (rather than as, say, Foucauldian heterotopias) my work asks about the status of animals in shaping the terms and texture of urban public life. Urban historians have done an excellent job of asking how differences of race, class, gender and sexuality come to bear on metropolitan culture and its suburban extensions. But far less is known about differences of species. What was the place of the nonhuman in twentieth-century American cities? Where did zoo animals belong in struggles over urban decay and rebirth? Did captive wildlife resonate with racial otherness in the city? What aspects of animal display under renewal made those associations alternately probable and improbable, and always tenuous? This line of inquiry insists that humans are not the only urbanites worth studying, and that reading the visual and material culture of zoos is one way of accessing the contributions of other city dwellers.

3) How has your experience with the Quadrant program uniquely informed or supported your research?
Thanks to a series of well-organized and well-timed exchanges, I came into the Quadrant program with a dissertation and left with a book project. The major elements of my fellowship – one public lecture, one lunch meeting with the Press, one workshop, and participation at the IAS – worked well as an overall schedule for my four months in residence. It provided just enough structure (and freedom) to move my project forward, and the intellectual dialogue necessary for work-in-progress.

My meeting with the Press and my workshop with UMN faculty were especially useful in helping give shape and direction to my ideas, while demystifying the book-writing and publication processes. The concrete feedback I received allowed me to embrace certain elements of the project, identify weak spots, imagine a readership, and let go of some concerns that risked stalling my work. One-on-one conversations with UMN faculty and the Press throughout my fellowship were also invaluable in this regard. Additionally, I benefited from participating in the weekly lunch meetings at the IAS. The invitation to routinely engage other fellows in their work gave me a deeper understanding of the interdisciplinarity of my own scholarship and its theoretical and methodological commitments. The generous stretches of reading and writing time were another big advantage of the program.


Watch Uddin present her work as a Quadrant fellow in September 2009 at the University of Minnesota.

Learn more about Quadrant.

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