News Column

Art Review: Exhibit challenges foundations of racism

May 4, 2014

By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



May 04--Race is such a hot-button issue that many may be surprised to learn it has no basis in biology. The idea that racial differences are an arbitrary social construct is the foundation of "RACE: Are We So Different?," an exhibit that runs through Oct. 27 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

The large all-ages show is rooted in studies of biological, cultural and historical notions of race but is very accessible, and a good portion of it is participatory. Photographs, videos, charts, interactive stations and historical artifacts tell stories that educate, surprise, explain and sometimes challenge held stereotypes. For example:

--"Who is White?" asks a display near the entry. It invites visitors to scroll through a list of nationalities to classify them as "white," "not white" or "unsure." Albanians, Algerians and Belgians lead a long list. And what about their immigrant populations?

--A station invites visitors to photograph one of their hands and add their skin shade to a growing mosaic.

--Native Americans identify themselves on a video and each concludes, "I am not a mascot."

--A wall of back-lit photographs of a diversity of individuals tests visitors' notions of which characteristics are shared. The answers are sometimes counter-intuitive.

--Faces on a stack of three monitors morph as their features -- hair, lips, eyes -- mingle characteristics ascribed to one group or another.

The exhibit was developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota and has been traveling since 2007. Stops have included the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.

The exhibit does not deny difference but challenges the validity of broadly assigning characteristics to individuals -- such as intelligence, musical tastes, work ethic or sports ability -- based upon surface qualities such as skin color.

"It's not a finger-wagging or shaming exhibit," said Cecile Shellman, museum communications and community specialist. "It's not saying to eradicate ethnic pride or pride in your history or heritage. It is important for people to identify with groups."

The goal is to correct "misapplications of history and science" and instead to share "very well-established research by a very erudite body of scholars."

"We become the objects," Ms. Shellman said. "Each of us has an identity. This is us. We are the person talking on the screen. Until we humanize each other, we can't understand each other. It's the job of museums, to make the collection relevant."

Some of the most interesting information is in texts and charts. A reproduction of the July 31, 1948, front page of the weekly Chicago Defender juxtaposes two headlines: "President Harry Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces" and "Posse, Bent on Lynching, Searches Woods for Prey; Rumors Negroes Would Resist Scatters Mob."

A timeline briefly relates the story of 7-year-old Minik, an Inuit who was brought from Greenland with family members in 1897 to be studied at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While he was there, his other family members became ill and died. Minik was adopted by a museum superintendent rather than be returned home. His biological father's bones were "de-fleshed" and added to the museum's collection.

"Most physical variation, about 94 percent, lies within so-called racial groups," according to the American Anthropological Association in a Statement on Race. "Conventional geographic 'racial' groupings differ from one another only in about 6 percent of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within 'racial' groups than between them."

A scientist explains in a video that were one to go to Sweden and then directly to South Africa, one might conclude that there were distinct racial types. But someone walking from Scandinavia to Africa would encounter gradations of skin color and other characteristics yet never find a definitive racial type.

Historically, the concept of race that informs 21st-century America began concurrent with the rise of colonialism and ultimately as a rationalization for slavery. Over time, immigrants began to receive their own typecasting.

William Cook, in his 1929 book "American Institutions and Their Preservation," described Jews as "a strange race ... adverse to agriculture and hard labor, of little physical courage, opposed to conflict and controversy." Italians were of "a fiery temper and quick to take offense and to revenge an insult real or fancied." Polish "... ethics are apt to be no ethics. They require a strong hand."

As the exhibit travels, venues frequently add a local component. The Carnegie has mounted a rotating mini-exhibition that comprises interviews of Pittsburghers concerning race made in the 1950s to 1970s and replicated this year. Complementary programming during the run of the show is designed to invite commentary and discussion.

One display is of 17 works from The Hapa Project. Kip Fulbeck explored multiraciality by photographing more than 1,100 people of partial Asian-Pacific Islander descent. The child of Chinese, English and Irish parentage, Mr. Fulbeck suffered discrimination at a time when multiracial was not a commonplace designation. The images are shown with handwritten responses to the question "What are you?"

"I am a person," wrote a little girl.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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(c)2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)


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