In 2011, RACE: Are We So Different? was one of the most popular visitor destinations at Natural History. This temporary traveling exhibition is a project of the American Anthropological Association, and was developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota. Several months before it opened, NMNH launched a campaign to recruit a new corps of volunteers to work in it.
When RACE opened on June 18, we had a diverse, motivated, and highly-trained group of seventy-five, ready to act as partners and sounding boards for visitors. Their role was to facilitate visitors’ experience of RACE, helping them to find entry points into the many conversations about science, history, and culture that the exhibition enabled.
For many of the seventy-five, this was their first experience volunteering in a museum. Over the nearly seven months that followed, the volunteers worked and talked with nearly 20,000 visitors––just a fraction, in fact, of the many from around the United States and the world who viewed the exhibition.
Now that RACE has left the Museum for its next destination (COSI in Columbus, Ohio), we asked our volunteers to reflect on their experience. What did it mean to them to serve as volunteers for this exhibition? How did it affect our visitors? And what is the larger meaning and significance of RACE: Are We So Different?
Many, like Ginger Morrison, felt that their experience had enhanced their ability to talk about race and other charged topics. “The exhibition,” Morrison said, “presented a new vocabulary that I use to talk about race. It also encouraged me to more openly initiate discussions about race outside of the exhibit itself.” Other volunteers found new understanding of the ways in which race, privilege, and difference were relevant to their lives. “I think more about the roots of our social and geographical divisions,” said Lina Khan, “and the psychological impact from events that happened in the past.” Still others, including Patricia McNally and Greg Jenkins, saw the exhibition as an opportunity to learn or learn more about the role played by perception in the creation and sustaining of stereotypes and assumptions about race.
The opportunity to speak with visitors from all walks of life was very meaningful to our volunteers. It was challenging, immediate, and fruitful: “It has allowed me to feel the impact of race on people, instead of just hearing or reading about it,” Darius Salimi explained. “Being able to interact with all kinds of people about the topic in a dedicated space was a needed release of thoughts, emotions and energy for me.” “The exhibit itself and the people I have met made me realize how great of an impact a single word can have on one’s life,” said Lizzie Ehrreich.
In the next part of this two-part posting, learn more about how our volunteers felt about the science in the exhibition, how many visitors reacted, and what volunteers feel the RACE exhibition means.
David D. LaCroix, Office of Education and Outreach