The Science Museum of Minnesota recently developed an exhibit called “Race: Are we so different?” This exhibit is now at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and will be in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New Orleans, Kalamazoo, Boston and Washington DC between now and June 2011.
If you get a chance, go see it.
In the meantime, a review of this exhibit has just been published in the current issue of Museum Anthropology, authored by Mischa Penn, Gil Tostevin, and yours truly, Greg Laden.
As one of the authors, it is obvious to me that this paper is brilliant! But I also admit that I cannot give you a non-biased review of it. However, since the paper is published in a non-OA journal and you will probably never see it in this context, I thought I’d summarize a few of the key points for you.
We liked the exhibit, we encourage people to visit it, we encourage teachers to take their students to it, and we commend the makers of the exhibit for their very successful effort. However, being anthropologists, we also have some criticisms.
The exhibit was funded to the tune of some four million dollars by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, overseen by Mary Margaret Overbey of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and a committee consisting of a wide range of experts on race, racism, and related topics. The museum is very well executed by the Science Museum exhibit designers and builders. You may not know this, but the MSM makes far more exhibits than it displays … this important upper Midwestern facility is contracted to make exhibits for a number of other agencies, and is thus quite well equipped and staffed and very well prepared for this sort of thing.
The race ‘story’ provided by the exhibit … the analysis of race itself and the examination of racism … is the American Anthropological Association model for race and racism, which has emerged as the product of decades (actually, about a century) of publication, discussion, meetings, policy building, (but remarkably little lobbying or political action) and so on. We reviewers of the exhibit agree with most of this model and strongly disagree with one part. In addition, we see a major lack of attention to one very important part of the model, and I personally (well, we three, but this is my beef in particular) see this as the unfortunate outcome of AAA politics.
First, the parts we agree with: There is no such thing as race (biologically), race is a social construct used as a political and economic tool, even efforts to use race in a “positive” way such as in medicine or forensics are doomed to failure because of the lack of biological validity of the concept, and so on and so forth.
Here, the idea of the exhibit is really to help people to realize that well formed thoughts about their fellow humans that are based on the race concept are like well formed thoughts about the world they live in that are based on the flat earth. But more destructive.
The main thing we did not like about the exhibit and the AAA race model is the AAA version of the origin of racism. The AAA story couches racism in the context of American colonial history, slavery, etc. etc. It states that racism is a purely Western invention, and distinguishes racism from other forms of hating your fellow human being. The rise of the modern capitalistic system, the nation state, the colonial and post colonial economies and societies, and slavery are the kitchen and racism is the bitter and poisonous buffet, manifest in myriad ways.
True enough, but not broad enough. It would be hard to fit the Jewish Holocaust into the race model looking only at the historical perspective in this exhibit. Indeed, this lack links to a second aspect of the historical model that we do not like. All three of us (and this idea comes from Penn, the elder author) believe the following statement to be essentially true: Racism, left unfettered, will always lead to holocaust. Always.
The exhibit does not have a single photograph of a black man swinging, dead, from a lamp post or a tree. The exhibit does not allow the visitor to engage in a sense of horror over genocide. The exhbit does not grab the visitor and force him or her to understand how dire the situation has been in the past and how dire it is now. Indeed, there are ways in which the exhibit sort of, kind of, (but not enough to get into our review I quickly add) makes it look like racism is historical, yes still with us to some extent but fading quickly.
This was done on purpose because exhibit designers don’t like to mess with the visitors too much. But we thought that they should have messed with the visitors in this case.
The second area of contention we had with the AAA model and the exhibit that is the model’s material manefestation was the almost compete lack of attention to the evidence from physical anthropology. Oh, it was in there, but not to the degree it should have been. If you read the literature on race and racism, especially the American literature, and especially the literautre published over the last century in the AAA’s own publication (American Anthropologist) you will see that the wooden spike in the heart of the daemon racism has been driven in repeatedly and most effectively by the physical anthropologists, working primarily with bony evidence set in a spatial-temporal context. The genetic evidence is not better than the bony evidence, it is just more recent and more scientific looking, and it does not address the same issues that the physical anthropology addresses. The genes to not replace the bones, and the genes cannot be properly interpreted without the bones.
Th reason for this error, we think, is simple: The AAA needed biological anthropology for this exhibit and to manifest their model, so they included a very small number of biological anthropologists who were in reasonably good communication with the AAA mainly geneticist Alan Goodman. Goodman’s contribution to this exhibit was invaluable. But the truth is that physical anthropologists with a handle on this topic, with quite a bit to say, and who are in command of the kind of physical material that makes excellent exhibit fodder, were simply ignored, not consulted, quite intentionally left out.
Indeed, the physical anthropology story is mainly represented in one of the additional material made available to teachers or other interseted parties, on a CD, and it consists of Stephen Jay Gould explaining the bony parts of human evolution. That made me laugh. And cry.
As an off and on member of the AAA, I can tell you that this is part of a larger pattern that emerges form the rift between biological anthropology and cultural anthropology. The AAA has been left mainly in the hands of the cultural anthropologists as many archaeologists and most biological anthropologists have moved away from the organization as a result of, really, being driven out by anti science sentiment.
So the political rift between the AAA proper and the rest of the anthropological community, combined with an insular approach by the AAA (to have this exhibit be their model, a manifestation of their world, and nothing else) leaves this exhibit lacking in some very important ways. A shame.
But, the issue of race and racism is big. One exhibit is not enough. This exhibit makes important points, and is well done, and should have an impact. The fact that as a traveling exhibit it is mainly being shown east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason Dixon line (with a couple of notable exceptions) is, well, frightening. But that is another story entirely..
If you get a chance, go see the exhibit. Bring the kids. Bring the adults. Ask your kids’ teachers to bring the class. There is funding (or at least was, here in the Twin Cities) to help cover the cost of school trips.
Your tax dollars at work. Very effectively, I believe.
Mischa Penn, Gregory Laden, Gilbert Tostevin (2008). Review Essay: RACE: Are We So Different? Museum Anthropology, 31 (2), 148-156 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1379.2008.00015.x