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“RACE: Are We So Different?” Was an Innovative 2011 Smithsonian Exhibition

[from Jul. 2011]

To view images full size, left click on each

Shortly after becoming America’s first African-American Attorney General in 2009, Eric Holder famously asserted during that year’s Black History Month that this nation, in spite of advances made in race related matters — including electing the first African-American president, remains a nation of cowards when facing race relations and solving its many continuing problems.

Photo courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota


all photos — courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota.

In a modest first step at addressing the issue of race in America, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is hosting a traveling exhibition, titled “RACE: Are We So Different,” organized by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota which, in the words of the Smithsonian’s press release on the exhibit, “encourages museum visitors to explore race from a personal, scientific, and historical perspective.” Further, the press release continues, “the exhibition will be complimented by a number of public programs for adults and children throughout the Smithsonian to engage visitors in a broader dialogue about race and identity in America.”

Photo courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota


With the exhibition’s first viewer display station — an interactive photographic comparison of the flesh tones of one’s hands with those of others visiting the show — the exhibition immediately answers its own question, which is no!, we are not all that different. We are basically all one race with, of course, cultural variations — some of which are more difficult to accommodate, one cultural group with another, than others. And with that, the refrain, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world,” that Protestant Sunday school children learned to sing in this reporter’s young life is superseded with a clever set of advanced information technology-infused display stations where skin coloration and the color of hands and facial appearance are demonstrably displayed as being shades of flesh tones that are more tan and light brown colorations than, for example, black and white.

Photo courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota


This is the world of multiculturalism, one that progressives the world over hope will in time overcome ethnic, religious, and nationalist strife now plaguing the world’s hot spots as well as continuing to disappoint all those working for racial justice in this country.

In laying out a programmatic exploration of its thesis, this well-meaning and valuable exhibition attempts both too much and too little.

Its “too much” is in its broad scope with its unlimited range over race throughout the world and how it and black slavery has impacted the United States, a vast subject that cannot be covered in a relatively small science museum-style presentation such as this one. And, of course, by race, the exhibition’s organizers really mean ethnic and cultural diversity and economic condition, which is how we all differ — without denying our fundamental sameness.

And by “too little,” the exhibition is inescapably focused on black and white in America and the horrific tragedy of slavery without pressing its exploration into the religious and political and economic power issues of that phenomenon.

Photo courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota


Moreover, while the tragedies of the European conquest of native American tribes and this country’s conquest of the Republic of Mexico, for example, are included with summary references, there is no room in this tightly focused survey to explore in any depth what the role of so-called race and race relations for native Americans and Mexican-Americans has meant and continues to mean in the multi-cultural world of today’s United States.

Photo courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota


There is much to learn, however, in both the content and the technology of this engaging installation. Graciously presented factual corrections to common misconceptions are a specialty of the exhibition. For example, an especially impressive set of boards with well-displayed maps and text explains the facts of sickle cell anemia and its occurrence where outbreaks of malaria have historically been prevalent — in parts of central Africa, the Indian subcontinent, parts of the Middle East and Asia Minor, the Balkans, the foot of Italy and Sicily — rather than simply in black Africa.

Linnaeus’s intellectual construct of the world’s four races — “white European”; “red American”; “brown Asian”; “black African” — is deftly dealt with, and the anthropologists who devised the boards on property rights, with references to the huge losses by native Americans and Mexicans of their vast lands, together with early state statutes excluding Asians from holding real property, are onto an issue of profound importance in this country, one that cuts across so-called “race” issues with every ethnic minority group in America. One need only track contemporary problems with black farmers losing their land in the deep South, and with homeowners in “redlined” or “minority” designated residential areas being plagued with sub-prime mortgages and their subsequent foreclosure.

Photo courtesy American Anthropological Association & The Science Museum of Minnesota


Well-produced talking head videos, interactive stations with real-time computer monitors that draw in the participation of the viewer, and deeply moving photographic images are interspersed throughout. A number of programs directly related to “RACE: Are We So Different” are planned at other Smithsonian museums during the duration of the exhibition –through 2011.

On the Mall at Constitution Avenue and 10th Street, NW. Hours: Mon.-Fri., 7:30am-6pm through Labor Day (4pm thereafter); weekends & holidays, 10am-6pm. Information regarding the related programs is available at or by calling (202) 633-1000.

*Anthony L. Harvey is a collector of contemporary art, with an emphasis on Washington artists. He is a founding member of the Washington Review of the Arts. For many years he was the staff person in the United States Senate responsible for arts and Library of Congress oversight by the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee and the House and Senate’s Joint Committee on the Library.

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