Are we so different? That is the question asked by—and subtitle of—a traveling exhibit on race in America now open at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The exhibit, developed by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota, uses a number of visual and interactive displays to ask questions about the nature, and our perceptions of race.
Is race defined by skin color, by shared history, by biology, by language, or all, some or none of these criteria?
In the science section of the exhibit, it notes that in big-picture terms—50,000-year timescale—we are all Africans. The only other “race” of humans during that period was the Neanderthals, and they are long gone.
It also looks at biology, DNA and how one’s racial “classification” would be different in different countries. It features interactive government, social and scientific timelines on race in America.
The main focus of the exhibit is timelier, chronicling every-day experiences with race and racism. The Community Voices gallery portion of the exhibit addresses these issues, and during the opening day activities, March 29, it was curated by Lynne Hayes-Freeland and Nikkia Hall. Carnegie Communications Specialist for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Cecile Shellman said it was based on the Pittsburgh Courier feature “Pittsburgh Speaks” that ran from the 1950s to 1977.
“I was asked to be part of it because they needed someone who could go out on the street and ask questions ala George Barbour, who did it originally,” said Hayes-Freeland. “We asked four questions he asked in 1961, and it was interesting to see what had changed and what hadn’t.”
Hayes-Freeland said, when asked about goals, in both surveys, the need for education was highlighted, but in 1961, no one was talking about violence in the community.
Though the exhibit features relics of the country’s segregated past including slave shackles and a 1931 sign from Montgomery, Ala. indicating which drinking fountains were for “White” and which were for “Colored” residents, it also looks at what Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians experience in terms of race.
One section focuses on the HAPA Project, which addresses issues faced by those of mixed Asian—particularly Hawaiian—and White ancestry.
Susan Kuo, a Taiwanese Canadian grad student at Pitt, said she felt the broader discussion of race is a good thing for Pittsburgh.
“Coming from a city with more ethnic diversity, I thought it would be good to gain the viewpoint of native Pittsburghers,” she said. “With the influx of Asians and Latinos, it’s important to be able to recognize these other relationships. I think the exhibit is very informative and hope it opens upfurther dialog.”
Bianca Moncalmont, in town from Philadelphia to visit a friend, said they came because they’d heard there was an exhibit “talking about the elephant in the room.” She was impressed.
“I was struck by how little things have changed,” she said. “What does it matter if someone is Black or Indian or Malaysian or whatever. It was awesome to see an exhibit showing how a subjective thing has be come objective, how an irrelevant thing has been made relevant.“
Shellman said given the strong positive response to the exhibit in the short time since it opened, she and the museum are working to develop additional programming around it.
“RACE: Are We So Different?” runs through Oct. 17 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Oakland, and is free with regular admission to the museum.
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