Exotic Animals in Europe, 1650-1850: Exhibition, Education and Entertainment

Tutor: Helen Cowie

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00052M

Credits: 20

Exotic animals have functioned at different times as symbols of power, scientific specimens, items of commerce and sources of education and entertainment. This module explores the multiple roles of exotic animals in the period 1650-1850, considering how and why they were collected, where and to whom they were exhibited and what reactions they generated.

The module traces zoological collections from private princely menageries and wunderkammern to public zoological gardens and museums in the early nineteenth century. Knowledge about exotic animals was formed both in the field and in the museum or laboratory. This information was then disseminated through exhibitions, lectures and popular works of natural history. The module situates the study and exhibition of animals within a wider passion for collecting and learning about the natural world and it considers how advances in taxidermy, shifts in taxonomy and the discovery of new species like the platypus shaped elite and popular conceptions of zoology. Attention is also paid to travelling wild beast shows, whose extensive travels and affordable admission prices democratised the study of natural history and literally brought elephants to the doors of the masses.

A variety of primary sources will be used to explore changing understandings and conceptions of exotic animals. These include contemporary newspaper accounts, zoological illustrations, guides to zoological collections and scientific texts.

Jacques-Laurent Agasse, The Nubian Giraffe, c.1827

The likley seminar programme is as follows:

    • Introduction
    • Princely menageries and cabinets of curiosity: exoticism, luxury and power
    • Travelling shows: animals in the fairground
    • Zoological gardens: animals, community and imperial identity
    • The natural history museum: animals as scientific specimens
    • Sport, profit and science: collecting and studying exotic animals in the field
    • Animals on the page: natural history literature and popular zoology
    • Nature and art: representing animals
    • Man and beast: ethnographic exhibits


Preliminary Reading

  • Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London: Reaktion Books, 2002).
  • Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998).
  • Kathleen Kete (ed.), A Cultural History of  Animals in the Age of Empire (Oxford: Berg, 2007).
  • David Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  • Juan Pimentel, El Rinoceronte y el Megaterio: Un Ensayo de Morfología Histórica (Madrid: Abada Editores, 2010).
  • Harriet  Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).
  • Louise Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002).
  • Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

Language requirements

There are no language requirements for this course, however students with a reading knowledge of French, German, Spanish or Italian may wish to make use of these.