Visitors to RACE: Are We So Different? at NMNH will see creative collaborations of a very personal nature: a set of four lockers, each holding an art installation made by students from DC schools.
Lockers like these have been a part of the RACE traveling exhibition since it debuted at the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2007. The originals were made by students in St. Paul, but when planning for the exhibition's time here, we saw the lockers as an opportunity to highlight the talents of local students. With the help of schools, teachers, and parents, we reached out to four schools to ask them to create new lockers.
Each team began by reflecting on the same questions: What is race? What does race mean to you? Has your life been affected by race? Even for students immersed in the multicultural life of the District of Columbia, these were challenging questions.
A video in the exhibition says that “race” is a short word with a long history in the USA. Zainya Carter of CentroNia agrees, and thinks that this history is one thing that makes race tough to talk about now. “When you hear ‘race,’ at first, you don’t know what to say,” she notes. And trying to figure it out by yourself might not help much. “If you’re just one person working on it, you would have biases and certain ways of thinking that might create a one-sided view,” said Tessa Thomas of Bell Multicultural High School. Working with teachers, advisors, and other students gave each team the ability to create a unified response.
But they had to work hard to achieve that unity. It took time to create an artwork that would flow from each student’s contribution, but also represent a vision that came from the whole team. “The decision-making process—deciding what we wanted to put in the locker and what we wanted the locker to represent—was both my favorite part and the hardest part,” said Olivia Johnson of the School Without Walls. Deja Rinehart of Kimball Elementary School put it very eloquently: “When you talk about it, it’s easy. But when you do it, it’s really hard!” Students from all four teams agreed with her.
The students drew strength from their belief that art has a role to play in national conversations. “Art can be your own documentary,” said Dennis Lazo of CentroNia. Diana Castillo of Bell thinks that people should know that art is a universal resource for making sense of the world. Even if “they tell me that they don’t have the talent to make art, I think that every person can draw or paint or make a ceramic piece,” she says. Moreover, working as part of an artistic team builds a kind of unity that can translate to our whole society. Zainya Carter believes that her CentroNia team “wanted to show people that we do work together, and we can all create a great idea or a great project.” “Everyone should see the lockers,” Jahni Threatt from School Without Walls insisted, because they will help them understand the world in a very personal way.
From the teachers’ point of view, the lockers have a clear set of messages. “People need to step out of thinking about themselves with a word—are you white, are you black, are you this, are you that,” said School Without Walls teacher Marni Leiken. CentroNia’s Director of Youth Programs, Kimberly Gaines, thinks that visitors will understand the lockers’ unifying statements. “We’re closer-knit than we actually think. We are more similar than we are dissimilar,” she believes. Bell art teacher Mandy McCullough thinks of her students’ problem-solving abilities as one of their greatest strengths, and that gives her great hope for the future. Kimball art teacher Eugene Foster feels the same way, and sees the lockers as a promising sign: “When they put together ideas like this, I think we’re going to be okay. And it feels amazing.”
RACE: Are We So Different? will be on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History from June 18, 2011 to January 2, 2012.
David D. LaCroix, Programming and Volunteer Training Coordinator, Office of Education and Outreach