June 12, 2014

Thoughts on RACE: Are We So Different?: Exhibition at Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh

What is race?

What is race? How do you perceive and integrate race into your daily life and interactions? 

An exhibition which has been travelling around the United States since 2007 and has recently arrived at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, RACE: Are We So Different? poses all these questions and many more, compelling us to realise that race is ultimately just a social construct - and much more than just the binary terms of black/white. RACE happens to be a project of the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. It is the first exhibition of this scale to offer an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United State

During my visit to the exhibition at the kind invitation of Cecile Shellman, museum communications and community specialist, I found myself giving much deeper thought than I have ever done before to the issues of race. "This exhibition is an invitation for thought leaders, community members, educators, students, and casual museum visitors to learn something new about how race has been classified; confront beliefs about race and culture; and to converse internally and with others,” says Shellman. “The idea is to spark dialogue that might not otherwise occur. In this way, the museum provides a safe and open space for learning about race and racism. We will consider this exhibition a success if the conversations continue well beyond our walls.”  

The exhibition is an intersection of science, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, and art; for example, we learn about the the relationship between genetic distribution and migratory patterns of earliest humans from Africa to various parts of the world, illustrating that genetically all human beings are more alike than individuals of any other living species. Similarly, we also become privy to  how people in power have classified others based on observable physical differences, and the resulting conclusions have led to systemic mistreatment of groups believed to be inferior or less capable. This study of power politics explores how groups of people were catalogued, how economics, popular culture, and politics have influenced treatment of various groups, and also, significantly, how attitudes about race have changed over time (as this American Census photograph below demonstrates). 

American Census: Changing Attitudes towards Race Over Time

Museums all over the world are constantly finding alternative ways to engage with their audience, moving away from traditional museum experiences. This exhibition is no exception: facts, statistics, and graphics merge with every-day experiences to produce a textured representation of the subject. There is ample use of multimedia presentations in form of  photographs, audio-visual presentations, and interactive stations along with standard display formats. Whether it's a station which asks you to guess a person's race through their voice or identify it by the virtue of their physical appearances, it makes you mindful of how race is woven into our every-day interactions and how we are both the objects and subjects of interactions and engagements without being particularly conscious of it.

Given that much of our engagement with the notion of race arises from visual interactions, it's perhaps appropriate that there were two photography projects interrogating the idea of race in the exhibition. One was a local project in which Pittsburgh Courier (the city's leading newspaper for its African-American community) took a series of photographs and interviews during the 1950s, asking the community at the time if there were any differences amongst them; the vast majority deny it while interestingly the same question (although reworded) is posed to the community in 2014 and several them admit to it. The project is significant for it locally contextualises the spirit of the exhibition as well as providing a larger historical perspective on the matter of inter-racial perceptions and interactions.

The Hapa Project

"What are you?" asks artist Kip in his photographic installation, The Hapa Project, which is a series of photographs promoting awareness and recognition of the millions of multiracial/multiethnic individuals of Asian/Pacific Islander descent in the U.S. We see individuals' photographs describing their racial make-up as well as self-written notes on how they perceive themselves. As they encounter a multiplicity of answers, visitors reflect on the sharp contrast between common conceptions of race and the fluidity of personal identity. The project ultimately underscores and reiterates the central point of the exhibition: at the heart of it all, whilst redressing long-entrenched misconceptions and myths, we must grasp and celebrate the truth that we are essentially just the same and that differences are merely skin-deep...

RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition is on at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History till 27th October

Pictures courtesy: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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