The Same Old Look at Difference

A Review of RACE: Are We So Different? at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

By Colleen Lenahan

I went into the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? with high expectations. I had heard good things about it: it was supposed to be provocative, fresh, and engaging. I wanted to feel challenged. I wanted to have my mind expanded. I wanted to be changed. Perhaps it was because of the pressure I put on the exhibit, but I was disappointed by what I actually saw.

The Overview

The exhibit brought up several themes, none of them particularly challenging or groundbreaking. There was a section talking about sickle cell anemia, another introducing the Out of Africa Theory, and another examining the categories of race used on the US Census. The main part of the exhibit was a cumbersome series of three timelines tracing the historical roles of science, government, and society in the construction of the concept of race.

Overall, I felt like I was trapped in a shouting match (not even a shouting match, which would have at least been exciting, but more of a tepid whispering match) between an anthropology journal from about 20 years ago, a boring American history textbook, and a biology picture book for children. I was so oversaturated and underwhelmed that I searched desperately for some meaning, some white-hot core of provocation that would leave me awake in bed for days, pondering what I had seen.

In the end, I found no such provocation, but there were some pieces of the exhibit that struck closer to the mark of what I wanted to see in an exhibit about race in America in the 21st century. They were all aspects of race viewed through the “Lived Experience” lens of the exhibit (the other two being “History” and “Human Variation”).

The Silver Lining

Prof. Vernellia Randall’s “Who is White?” interactive made me reconsider my own racial preconceptions. The series of questions presented a nationality, such as “Albanian” or “Spanish,” and asked the visitor to categorize people of that nationality as “White,” “Not White,” or “Unsure.” Though the exercise was thought-provoking, it reinforced the concept of “whiteness” rather than trying to deconstruct it.

The Hapa Project, a series of intimate photographs of mixed race individuals and their handwritten responses to the question “What are you?” was another bright spot, as it explored some personal iterations of what race looks and feels like now in America: not a series of discrete categories like white, Latino, Asian, or black, but a gradient of identities, colors, voices, and backgrounds.

Kiri Davis’s documentary “A Girl Like Me” proposed the sorts of questions I was hoping to see more of in the rest of the show. In this short film, the teenage filmmaker interviews black teenage girls about their conceptions of beauty and how they feel they are perceived and supposed to be perceived by other black women and by society as a whole. It probes the current status of race and gets more into actual perceptions of race by those affected by it, not just parroting textbook versions of how racial relations have been in the past. Davis also performs a test where she presents two baby dolls, one black and one white, to a series of young black children. The vast majority of these children identify the white doll as being the one they would want of the two, the “good” one, and the “nice” one, while they describe the black doll as “ugly.” To me, this study was the most informative and insightful aspect of the entire exhibit.

The Takeaway

Perhaps the exhibit failed to deliver what I was craving because it was looking in the wrong direction. The focus on history was understandable, but in my opinion, limiting. Yes, we should always remember the sins of the past in order to never repeat them in the future. Yes, we should have a sense of how things came to be how they are today. But history needn’t limit us or define how we explore racial differences in the future.

As Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the musical South Pacific, people have to be taught to be racist. In order to attempt to move beyond racism, we must erase the ideas about race held in the past and reinvent the concept, coming up with new ways of exploring and celebrating the diverse backgrounds that make up the United States of America. And rather than looking forward, this exhibit was looking back, reaffirming racial stereotypes of the past in a new generation.

About the Author: Colleen Lenahan is a second-year graduate student in the Museology Masters Program at the University of Washington. She is interested in connecting visitors to museum content through exhibit development, and she believes that museums have a responsibility to move social dialogue forward in America.

Up for Discussion

[Editor’s Note: We posted about this exhibit early last month, and it will be coming to the Pacific Science Center next year. For the perspective of Robert Garfinkle, who was the project lead on this exhibit, see this post and this post on the Incluseum’s blog.]

What do you think about how museum exhibits should handle race? Should museums look mostly forward or back? Should they balance both perspectives? Which perspective do you find most meaningful?

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2 comments
  1. Hi, this is Rose from the Incluseum. I wanted to share that Robert Garfinkle, who led the project team that created Race: Are We So Different?, addressed many of Colleen’s comments regarding the exhibition content on our blog: http://bit.ly/TFJqjw.

    Personally, I think museum exhibits should both look forward AND back when dealing with the topic of race. By providing a historical lens, the Race exhibit contributes foundational knowledge many visitors need to be able to understand and discuss what the concept of race means in contemporary American society. Consider that many visitors have not grown up in this country and that white privilege has allowed many to remain unaware of “race”, etc. Only with foundational knowledge provided by “looking back” can forward thinking content and conversations be successful.

  2. AndreaM said:

    Hi, Rose. Thank you for your comment and the link to Robert Garfinkle’s article. I appreciate the idea of museums needing to be both forward- and backward-looking—but somehow they also need to not be so exhaustive that they simply exhaust. It’s a balance, isn’t it!

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