One of the most popular visitor destinations at Natural History in 2011 was RACE: Are We So Different? This temporary, traveling exhibition is a project of the American Anthropological Association, developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota. We spoke with some of our volunteers about their experience working with visitors in the exhibition.
Volunteers found that the wide range of topics covered in RACE: Are We So Different? made it easy to start conversations with visitors. Although much of the content focuses on the evolution of race in the history and society of the United States, the RACE: Are We So Different? exhibition is grounded in the science of human variation. For visitors and volunteers alike, this was a useful entry point. For example, Cassie Ghee met many who were very happy with the focus on science. “Most said that it was about time this information was made public to a wider audience,” because it rooted the discussion in a very profound way.
More broadly, Meg Wilder described the exhibition as “a new lens for viewing our common history and experiences,” one that moved many visitors. She noted that many conversations that she had with visitors were surprisingly intimate: “The exhibition led us beyond our unconscious biases and our initial assumptions.” David Marshall concurred, although he wasn’t surprised, for he believes that “there are many people of all backgrounds who want to discuss issues concerning race. While most of us discuss these issues in comfortable and safe environments, with friends and family, there are those who crave the opportunity to go beyond those conversations.” This opportunity crossed many lines, Lisa Walsh saw, and “every visitor took away a new piece of information or precious moment of learning.”
For many visitors, Natural History provided an ideal space for discussion. Jane Hammel was certain that the Smithsonian’s choice to host RACE spoke volumes to visitors. “Many wished it would remain here in some capacity, as do I,” she said. The two comments that Patricia McNally heard most frequently were “Why don’t we have more exhibits like this?” and “This exhibit is so important to starting a conversation about race.” She saw that people were excited by the richness and depth of the information in the exhibition, and many people spent more time in the exhibition than they anticipated. “The RACE exhibition has the potential of being the new ‘Galileo moment’ of our times,” thinks E. David Garcia, who wrote about his experiences for this blog in August. “It has the power to create a fundamental shift in our perception of how we see the world” and the people with whom we share it.
The potential for that fundamental shift lies in the exhibition’s capacity to enable and inform learning and discussion. Silas Otieno equates the exhibition with this outcome: “The RACE exhibition means conversation, the ability to bring people together in a neutral and conducive environment and just lay bare our thoughts and ideas on the issue of race.” To Enid J. LaGesse, “the RACE exhibition means we can more clearly understand and reframe our story as a united people, discuss openly our pain and healing, and dream of new solutions to age-old problems.”
If there was one feeling that all our volunteers shared, it was the sense that RACE: Are We So Different? tells a coherent and timely story in a way that opened a place for everyone to participate. “Everyone’s story is valid and worth being told,” said David Marshall. “If only we had the time and space to hear more of our stories, we might be able to better wrap our arms around the very complex notion of race.” Greg Jenkins found it “healthy, frustrating, bewildering, enlightening, learning, unbelievable, true, thought-provoking, heart-string pulling, angering, anxious, and necessary to our collective hearts and souls.” He paused for breath, and then continued: “It’s an American community story.” It is, finally, a story to which Natural History has been pleased to contribute.
We thank all our volunteers for their hard work and generosity in 2011. Over thirty of them plan to continue volunteering at Natural History and elsewhere in the Smithsonian. We’re very happy that they’ve decided to stay with us, and look forward to the many ways in which they will carry the energy and experience of RACE: Are We So Different? forward.
David D. LaCroix, Office of Education and Outreach