The Cultural Zoo is a cultural tradition or art that is reenacted or revived in modern times in the name of tourism or as part of a cultural preservation movement. The result is generally the portrayal of the most visible elements of a tradition that are acted out in ways that are removed from the meanings they once had when practiced as a way of life or a true profession.
Exhibits in the cultural zoo are generally actions which once had deep meanings for a particular culture that are now performed in an expediently learned manner by revivalists — often under the banner of preserving the tradition. In this way, the “tradition” being reenacted is to the contemporary culture what an animal in a zoo is to its native wild environment: both are still there, living, existing, but it’s just not the same.
An example of the cultural zoo in practice are the Naxi dances that are now performed for tourists in Yunnan, China. Though the movements of the dance are similar to how they’ve been practiced in the past, the reason for their performance is now much different. The dances are now for the sake of tourism, to make money and create a livelihood by putting “culture” on display, which is different from the meaning of the dances pre-tourism.
Though exhibits in the cultural zoo are portrayed differently, the idea of tradition or meaning is a sliding perspective: cultures are always changing and meaning is always shifting. Though the cultural zoo is often removed from what it is said to represent, it still has value for its contemporary role and meaning in the cultures that practice traditions in this manner.
Read more at the Value of the Cultural Zoo.