RACE: Are We So Different? – Exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History

I had been wanting to see the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? since I first heard of it a year ago, back when the traveling exhibition was in California, Iowa, and Minnesota. My recent visit to see it at the National Museum of Natural History happened serendipitously. My friend Meredith and I had arrived on the National Mall to see an evening concert at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but the concert was canceled due to imminent thunderstorms. To get out of the sudden rain, I suggested we go to NMNH. We stayed until closing time, but since it was already late, we were only able to see part of the exhibit.

The part we saw had lots of information, with relatively few actual objects – to be expected in an exhibit designed to travel. However, there was no shortage of things to see, including interactive technology as well as panels one could physically manipulate.

Meredith learns from technology at NMNH

Included in the exhibit was a timeline of defining moments in the history of defining race, as well as a theme throughout about how we categorize people. In a class session in Museum Evaluation last year, my classmates and I were divided into groups and asked to classify various images of buildings and scenery; the result was that each group found a different system of categorization. So it is with the human race’s history of putting humanity into categories.

Here in contemporary American culture, we have a few racial categories based primarily on skin color combined with other physical characteristics. In the late Middle Ages, the exhibit tells us, people in Europe were classified instead by religion. Meanwhile, Brazilian conceptualization of skin colors includes a staggering 134 different categories. I can’t begin to guess which one describes me.

134 Brazilian terms for skin tones

Other parts of the installation show how our categories can become muddled. One wall displays a small gallery of framed photographs. Each image portrays a person whom contemporary American culture would probably call multiracial, and every individual has written the descriptors they choose for themselves, like this example:

"I am a person"

As we walked from the museum to the Metro, Meredith and I discussed what our ideas on race might have been had we lived in some bygone era. Of course, we want to think we’d be on the right side of history, ahead of our times, able to think outside the box. As I told Meredith, I don’t think I necessarily have a whole lot of brand-new ideas about social issues, but I believe I do choose the more progressive of the ideas already being tossed around in my time. RACE does a good job of showing that there are multiple ideas, both scientific and cultural, to choose from. I look forward to seeing the rest of the exhibit.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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