Science Museum puts race under the microscope

The Science Museum of Minnesota is launching "Race: Are We So Different?" After it closes in St. Paul May 6, the exhibition will tour the country for the next five years.
Image courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota

Museum officials believe their exhibition creates a new framework for people to talk about race in America. It's a collaboration between the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum.

The shackles of slaves
Shackles used to imprison slaves are on display at the exhibit. The Rev. Ron Smith is visible from the other side.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

San Jose State anthropologist Carol Mukhopadhyay helped create the content for the exhibition. Mukhopadhyay says one of its main objectives is to point out how the common concept of race has no scientific validity. She says in the realm of biological distinctions among humans, a difference in skin color is minute.

"It is only a small piece of the enormous biological variation that exists with the human species," she says.

Mukhopadyay says the idea of race is a cultural construct that dates back to the European exploration and colonization of the New World. She says Americans have been taught a racial ideology, and essentially brainwashed into categorizing people by race.

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Robert Garfinkle, the Science Museum's special projects director, says the exhibition traces how that ideology has been used to justify inequality and disparity.

Smith and Garfinkel
Pastor Ron Smith, left, and project manager Robert Garfinkle.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"It's really important to tell the story that race began as an idea to privilege some over others, and then took on the mantle of biology as a way to rationalize that," he says.

Joining a preview tour of the exhibition is the Rev. Ron Smith, someone who's uniquely aware of the racial divide. Smith is pastor at Unity Baptist Church in St. Paul, a congregation that formed nine years ago when two local churches, one all-white, the other all-black, became one. The merger hasn't been easy going.

"You get people who want to talk about diversity, send their kids to diverse schools, but it really takes work," Smith says. "And it's hard work."

Several exhibits in the show examine how race manifests itself not just through prejudice but through institutions. One shows how the GI Bill, credited with spawning the middle class, overwelmingly benefited white soldiers.

Near the back of the gallery, another exhibit explores how white settlers, with the help of the U.S. government, usurped 95 percent of the land that belonged to Native Americans.

Limo ride
Teenagers take a limo ride along Lake Street in Minneapolis.
Photo by Wing Young Huie, courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota

Pastor Ron Smith feels that one belonged closer to the front, "because in my mind, I begin with the relationship between the Native Americans and the first American settlers as I try to unravel the concept of race," he says.

The exhibition also attempts to connect the science and history of race with people's everyday experiences. At the entrance, visitors hear people from every walk of life defining what race means to them.

One installation, entitled "Who's Talking?," asks visitors to match voices with photos of people, based on speech patterns and inflection.

In another section, a large video screen features students from St. Paul Central High School answering the question, "Where do you sit in the cafeteria?"

A display explaining how the history of all races began in northeastern Africa prompts a query from Ron Smith.

Carol Mukhopadhyay is an anthropologist at San Jose State University in California. "Race: Are We So Different?" is a collaboration between the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"We all came from Africa. If that's our starting point, then are you expecting some backlash?"

"This is a science museum," Garfinkle responds, "and we present what we understand the scientific consensus to be. So, I welcome that people would have different views of this, and, let's talk about it."

For Robert Garfinkle, that's the primary aim of the exhibition -- to enhance the quantity and quality of conversations about race in our community. The museum will even have trained facilitators on hand who can invoke the Native American tradition of "talking circles" to encourage post-exhibit dialogues among visitors.

It's an idea that appeals to Ron Smith.

"Hopefully, their talking circles will create conversation partners, and those conversations will go on beyond the walls of the museum," Smith says. "That's my hope."

After its stay at the Science Museum ends May 6, the "Race" exhibit will embark on a cross-country museum tour. Science Museum officials say it's already booked solid for the next five years.