London Zoo and the Victorians, 1848-1859

By Bruce, Gary | The Historian, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

London Zoo and the Victorians, 1848-1859


Bruce, Gary, The Historian


London Zoo and the Victorians, 1848-1859. By Takashi Ito. (Suffolk, England: Boydell Press, 2014. Pp. 204. $90.00.)

For most of its history, the London Zoo was the standard by which other zoos measured themselves. Its ability in the nineteenth century to exhibit charismatic megafauna such as giraffes, hippos, monkeys, rhinos, and elephants far surpassed what other European zoos of that era could manage. When Berlin decided to establish a zoo in the 1840s, the Prussian king sent an envoy, Martin Lichtenstein, to London to see how best to go about it. Because of its prominence in the history of animal-human relations and its central role among

Britain's cultural institutions, the London Zoo is a subject eminently worthy of study.

Takashi Ito's account is a sustained argument for moving beyond the imperial trope in our understanding of the London Zoo. Insofar, it is a direct response to--but, it should be said, not a polemic against--the noted scholar of animal-human relations in British history, Harriet Ritvo, who contends that the zoo represented a British imperial vision of the world. Ito believes that such a static view of the London Zoo takes into account neither periodization nor public agency. The London Zoo, after all, flourished well before the high point of imperialism and long after Britain's retreat from empire. Similarly, Ito emphasizes that "the public" cannot be viewed as a monolithic, passive recipient of culture but rather as a collection of individuals who brought to the zoo their own preconceptions formed by a variety of influences, not the least of which was public science. As Ito writes: " [T]he significance of the zoo especially prior to the 1870s was so variously defined that the zoo's animal displays could not be deciphered using any single code of ideological symbolism" (18).

The author's most interesting case with which to study the concept of the "imperial zoo" is the institution's acquisition of an animal long thought to be mythical--a giraffe. …

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