now this is the kind of exhibit i’d pay to see! i would like to take this time to say “told ya so.” not that anyone’s really argued against this point with me. i’m just sayin’… it doesn’t exist… and yet it dictates life chances and prevents us from being open to what exists and really matters in ourselves and each other.
By Chris Bergeron/DAILY NEWS STAFF
BOSTON —An African, an Asian and a North American viewing the new exhibit “Race” at the Museum of Science might be surprised to discover they have more in common than individuals of any other species on Earth.
They would learn their variously colored complexions derive from how their skin processes folate and vitamin D. The African would find he’s susceptible to sickle cell anemia, not because of his race but because of the prevalence of malaria in his homeland.
And all three might be troubled to learn world-famous psychologist Arthur Jensen has written that differences in their intelligence can be attributed to their racial origins.
By the exhibit’s end, each might answer the question in its subtitle, “Are We So Different?” by saying, “No, not based on our genes.”
Combining scientific, anthropological and historical evidence, the exhibit argues the fundamental concept of race and racial differences has no biological basis but is a man-made distinction with immeasurable social consequences over the centuries.
Developed by the American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota, “Race” invites visitors to examine race and racism through exhibits, interactive stations and artifacts.
Museum President and Director Ioannis Miaoulis said it’s the first exhibit to examine race and human variations using the most up-to-date genetic discoveries.
“This exhibit can be inspiring, revealing and even life-changing,” he said opening the show last Thursday.
Chioma Nnaji, research coordinator of the UMass Horizon Center in Boston, praised the exhibit for explaining how a broad misunderstanding of race “complicated” relations between people by emphasizing superficial differences over shared interests.
Citing cutting-edge genetic research, the exhibit states, “Race is a recent human invention.”
Nina Catubig Nolan, chairwoman of the museum’s Race education team, said, “The idea of race doesn’t have a basis in biology. Humans from around the world share 99.5 percent of their genes. That’s more than chimpanzees or fruit flies,” she said.
Flawed science results in social injustice.
The failure to recognize our common genetic heritage is demonstrated by a photo that shows how the U.S. Census labeled people based on mistaken ideas of pigmentation and appearance.
From 1850 to 2000, a mixed-race woman would have been variously described as “mulatto,” “Negro” or, recently, “White and African American.” From 1930 to 1990, a woman from Tijuana who moved to Texas would have been labeled “Mexican,” “white” and “Hispanic white.” Over the course of the 20th century, Inuit women have been called “Indians,” “Eskimos” and in 2000 “Alaska natives.”
Wall text by that photo states: “The idea of race is tied to power and hierarchy among people. The legacy of race continues to shape the lives and relationships of people in the U.S. and around the world.”
Paul Fontaine, vice-president of education at the Museum of Science, said “Race” provides “a perfect opportunity to look at a sociological issue through a scientific lens.”
Museum official sought to open the exhibit just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day and over the following months to encourage discussion about a timely issue and provide an opportunity to present related events and activities, he said.
“When we first saw ‘Race,’ we loved the way it was presented. It was powerful and emotional and based on current genetic research. From this exhibit, visitors will learn race is an artificial construct. Yet it has been the basis for categorizing people and all the negative reactions that have followed from that,” said Fontaine.
“Race” includes fascinating, even a few disturbing, artifacts.
A “hair color table” that measured the spectrum of hair color from Aryan blonde to less desirable shades was used by Nazis to provide a scientific basis for the practice of “racial hygiene” that legitimized the deaths of millions of “non-Aryan” Jews, gypsies and Slavs.
Closer to home, visitors can see a placard for a “Colored Waiting Room” and a sign announcing “We want white tenants for our white community.”
And debunking a television crime show staple, the exhibit uses photos and expert testimony to show forensic pathologists can not definitively determine a victim’s race from their bones and teeth with the regularity or ease of investigators on “CSI Miami.”
Unlike many Museum of Science exhibits, “Race” devotes more than half its gallery space to establishing a historical and social context for its premise that humans have misused the idea as a tool to discriminate rather than seek common ground.
The most effective parts of the exhibit help visitors understand the genetic science that provides the exhibit’s foundation. By twisting a dial, visitors can direct human migration from 100,000 B.C. to 40,000 B.C. across a world map.
At the exhibit’s opening, musician and sound artist Halsey Burgund previewed a segment of his audio installation, “Voices Without Faces, Voices Without Race,” which consists of snippets of conversation from more than 250 people discussing race.
Commissioned by the museum, he recorded people along Rte. 128 responding to three questions: When did you first become aware of race? When were you first privileged by or discriminated against because of race? And, What is your experience of race in Boston? The audio installation will open Feb. 3.
Khaalie Parham, a 15-year-old sophomore at Community Charter School in Cambridge, said people react differently to him depending on whether he’s in his predominantly white hometown of Belmont or among his peers.
“Race has a huge significance in my life. If I’m in Belmont, people look at me differently or cross to the other side of the street than I’m walking on,” he said. “In my school, race isn’t much of a factor. But if people look past differences and what other people say and follow their own mind, then race stops dividing people.”
WHAT: “Race: Are We So Different?”
WHERE: Museum of Science, Science Park, Boston
WHEN: Through May 15
ADMISSION: $21 for adults, $19 for seniors (60+) and $18 for children (3-11)
INFO: 617-723-2500, TTY 617-589-0417, www.mos.org.
Visit the American Anthropological Association’s Race Project at www.understandingrace.org