New Exhibition Presents Race As Cultural, Not Biological

By Jared Bowen


Jan. 31, 2011

An interactive game about the traits people share yields surprising results at the Museum of Science's new exhibition, 'Race: Are We So Different?' (Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota.)

BOSTON — Race has existed long in our nation’s history—employed as a tool for law-making, social division and much worse. But a new show at the Museum of Science, called ‘Race: Are We So Different?’ asks us to consider why.
The exhibition’s premise is that race is a learned behavior, nothing more, said Paul Fontaine, vice president for education at the museum.
“When you come to the exhibit you learn that there’s no genetic basis for race. There’s no markers in our chromosomes for race. But it’s about human variation,” Fontaine said.

Video: Watch Jared Bowen's tour through the exhibition. (Full-screen video)

 The exhibition is also meant to explore the affect of racism upon humanity, so there are testimonies of people adversely affected by racism throughout the exhibition.

 “The idea, the concept of race is artificial, but its manifestations are very real,” said Fontaine.
Museum educator Nina Catubig Nolan said that exhibition wants to present race as a cultural development, not a biological one.
“Race is a social construct and the history and parts of the exhibit try to follow this idea. Where did this idea of white come from? In the early days of our country you were an Englishman, you were Russian, you were Italian. The idea of race didn’t come until later on in our history,” Nolan said.
Visitors start with a survey, which asks them to decide who is “white.” As they go through the exhibition, they see displays intended to make notions of race more ambiguous.
 “There’s a lot of ‘aha’ moments in terms of just personal experience,” Nolan said.
There are provocative moments too, like a station that dispels the notion that sickle cell anemia is an African-American disease.

The answer to this question has continually changed since the census began in 1790, reflecting changing ideas about race in American society. (Courtesy of American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota.)

“It turns out that somebody who’s of Greek descent may have the sickle-cell gene, whereas somebody who descends from someone who lived in Southern Africa really won’t have the sickle cell gene,” Nolan said.

That’s because there’s malaria along the Mediterranean, but not in southern Africa, which affects the development of sickle-cell genes.
Another station asks visitors to listen to voices and choose the person they think they’re listening to from a series of pictures of people with different skin colors. Nolan says it’s an exercise in racial stereotyping.
 “When I found myself getting every single voice wrong it kind of caused me to question my own experiences like why would I think that somebody with that accent could look like this,” Nolan said.
In ‘Race: Why are We So Different?’ the answers can be more difficult than the overarching question.


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