in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Race and Identity in the Museum
There are exhibits, and then there are exhibits. You know the good ones right away – they make you think, they encourage you to spend more time with them than you were planning, they challenge your assumptions. As visitors, these are the experiences we remember; as professionals, these are the experiences we aim to create.
Last month, I was visiting the Boston Museum of Science and its special exhibition, “RACE: Are We So Different?” caught my interest right away, beckoning from across the hall while we played with probability in the Mathematica room. I was surprised (and pleased) to see an exhibition with a humanities bent in a science museum. I headed over and got lost, until the museum guard came around to remind us the museum was closing in fifteen minutes. It was one of those exhibits.
This week, the New York Times reported about multiracial college applicants and the ways in which they approach the race question on college applications. Today, there are many more options for defining one’s racial identity, yet students feel that checking a box, or a combination of boxes, does not always accurately reflect their identity. This is just one example of the impact of race, specifically race as a socially defined, and variable, category. RACE aims “to help individuals of all ages better understand the origins and manifestations of race and racism in everyday life by investigating race and human variation through the framework of science .”
The first few panels challenge received wisdom about the science behind skin color. Do darker skin tones protect against cancer? Can you easily identify people of different races through auditory cues? A quote from a geneticist reminds us, “Historically, the concept of race was imported into biology – from social practice.” The center portion of the exhibition is composed of a short history of race in America. I didn’t spend much time here; I was more interested in the way the designers leveraged science and contemporary public policy and statistics to tell a new story about the impact of prejudice based on skin color. Piles of cash, for example, were a striking visual representation of the wealth disparities among whites and other ethnic groups. The exhibit used lived experience very well. There were two video stations with individuals sharing their everyday experiences with race. Sepia tone portraits ran half the length of one wall; the subjects had written a caption about their racial identity – they were funny, poignant, and real.
In one corner of the exhibition space was a contemporary photograph of a group of people. Each person was wearing a white t-shirt with black lettering. The lettering on the shirts said “Free white” or “Mexican” or “Mulatto”; the shirts also had a date, corresponding to the year in which the racial category on their shirt was used in the census. Each individual had three categories on their shirt, highlighting the drastic changes in official U.S. conceptions of race over time. The exhibit label asks “Why do we have race on the census, anyway?” Or, as the New York Times story reminds us, how can we make space for the varied ways in which individuals identify themselves? Brazil, for example, has over 100 commonly used racial descriptors.
RACE was developed by the American Anthropological Association, with the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2007. It began its run there and has been on a national tour since. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet, it begins a six-month-long stint at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC starting this Saturday (June 16). It is an important exhibition, one that challenges historical notions about race with a mix of history, science, and personal experience. The combination is powerful, and not to be missed. The exhibit demonstrates that race is not based in scientific fact, but is instead a cultural construct – understood variably in different times and different places. I think many of us know this already, but the exhibition’s commitment to using scientific studies as proof of the social, rather than biological, roots of race and racism is successful. Cultural constructs are deeply affecting, however, and the exhibit also shows that while race does not have a scientific basis, racism has been a defining force in America.
It is not every day that a museum exhibition prompts you to reexamine your ideas and to engage deeply with your place in the community. We tend to think of exhibitions as passive, with the accompanying events and programs as the real opportunities for curators and experts to host discussions about the material. But really, exhibitions are programs, too. They allow us to interact with, and digest, the ideas and concepts on our own terms. If done well, they ask the us to share our opinions. And, since many of us visit museums with friends or family members, the conversations an exhibition can provoke are programs in miniature. It’s a different, but no less powerful, form of civic engagement.
RACE: Are We So Different?
At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through January 1, 2012.
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20560
Open 10am-5:30pm daily.