Science Museum features students in race exhibit

By Diana Petty

To explore the issue of racial identities, the American Anthropological Association is sponsoring a traveling exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?” The exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota takes visitors through an interactive journey intended to help them understand what race is and what it is not. A combination of personal stories and academic insight, the exhibit focuses on three central themes: the everyday experience of race, the science of human variation, and the history of the concept not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. Stepping into the exhibit, visitors are presented with a world of visual representations of the human appearance; photographs abound, plasma screens show personal interviews, and thousands of lines of text offer insight into the concept and reality of race.

Greeting guests upon their arrival is a five-by six-foot picture of Macalester’s latest Mellon Mays Undergraduate fellows and advisor, history professor Peter Rachleff.
Rachleff and the other students wear a t-shirt labeling them as the U.S. census would have defined them in different decades throughout history. From slave to Negro to Black or Indian to Eskimo to Alaskan Native this image is meant to help visitors conceptualize the role the government might play in creating racial labels.

The Mellon Mays fellowship is a 20- year old national program that includes 39 colleges and universities and encourages students of color to do research and attend graduate school. Macalester has been participating for five years and this year’s fellows were approached by exhibit designer Robert Garfinkel to participate.

“They wanted a group of ethnically diverse individuals willing to let their bodies be used to show how the census influences racial perceptions. I further wanted the students to use their minds, in addition to their bodies, to help represent this complex issue to the public,” Rachleff said.

Rachleff said he is pleased that the fellows’ contribution will remain a prominent part of the exhibit as it travels from city to city for the next seven years.

Rachleff said the exhibit accomplishes the often-difficult task of bringing an academic issue to a broader audience.

“When exploring the social construction of race, the exhibit creates a solid discussion of the material dimensions of race: healthcare, housing, etc. The terms and categories used by the census are influential beyond just what people look like,” Rachleff said.

Many other Macalester students have already had a chance to visit the exhibit. “You always have your own viewpoint about what race is based on your own experience,” Kari Tanaka ’08 said. “The exhibit shows how to look at race as a whole.”

Megan Thompson ’08, a psychology major, said, “I wish that some of my friends from high school that aren’t as socially aware or know people of different races could come to this exhibit and see how similar we all really are.”
Both Tanaka and Thompson come from multi-ethnic families, African-American/ Native-American and Japanese/caucasian respectively, and commented that it was nice to hear other people’s experiences dealing with the “what race are you” question. For them, the experience confirmed existing impressions on race but also offered new information to which they could relate.

Tanaka said that Macalester’s emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity is reflected in the exhibit: “I think Macalester is already very racially conscious and many of the social science classes I’ve taken have discussed these sorts of issues. But being at the exhibit and seeing others, particularly younger kids, learning that though we may view each other differently, we really aren’t that different, was truly inspiring.”
From human origins in Africa to the creation of race to the history of affirmative action to how sunlight really decides the color of your skin, the exhibit is at the Science Museum until May 6. The cost is included in the price of general admission which is $9.50 for students.

For those interested in further exploration race related issues, there are many other upcoming opportunities. In addition to the Science Museum exhibit, the Walker Art Center is also featuring an exhibition that deals with race. Kara Walker’s art will be displayed in the “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” exhibit from February 13 to May 17.

In celebration of these exhibits the Macalester American Studies Department’s eighth annual conference will be sponsoring bus trips to see them as well as offering speeches by exhibit designer Robert Garfinkel, the Mellon Mays fellows, and prominent USC scholar in African American history Robin D. G. Kelley. The conference will be held the weekend of February 23 and more information is available in the American Studies department.

For more information about the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit, visit www.understandingrace.org.