Carnegie Museum exhibit on 'Race' explores differences, similarities

An itneractive game about the traits people share is part of the 'Race' exhibit.
An itneractive game about the traits people share is part of the 'Race' exhibit.
Photo by Terry Gydesen
| Friday, March 28, 2014, 8:59 p.m.

Race issues aren't just a cultural thing.

There is a science behind the anthropology of race, too, and many people aren't aware of it, say officials from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which is opening an exhibit on the topic this week.

Skeletal remains are not a foolproof way of determining someone's race, for example. Climate conditions and sun intensity of ancestral homelands — Africa, for instance — influenced skin color through the evolutionary process. Visitors to the traveling exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” will learn about these scientific aspects of race, along with cultural issues.

“This is a unique exhibition for this institution,” says Cecile Shellman, communications and community specialist for the museum. “But we wanted the opportunity to discuss race and culture. We're not just dinosaurs.”

The “Race” exhibit, she says, is “relevant, current and a good fit for the community.”

“Race,” a joint creation of the American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Va., and the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, teaches visitors with many pieces placed throughout a 5,000-square-foot gallery.

Joanne Jones-Rizzi, director of community engagement for the Science Museum of Minnesota, worked on the team that created the “Race” exhibit, which opened in 2007 at that museum. After a five-month run there, the exhibit went on tour to other museums, and the demand was so great that the team duplicated “Race” so that two were circulating.

Members also created a smaller, 1,500-square-foot version to fit in smaller university museums and libraries. In September 2015, the Minnesota museum will get one of the “Race” collections back to be displayed for three years.

“It has been, I think, a resounding response of the interest in museums and communities that they're situated in to have this conversation about race,” Jones-Rizzi says.

Jones-Rizzi says the exhibit explores the history, biology and social aspects of race.

“You can see how something that doesn't exist biologically exists socially, and is pretty much a part of all of our lives,” she says. “I think it's looking at those three lenses together that makes it so powerful.”

In the exhibit, individual stations use videos running in loops and photos with text on display.

Interactive components challenge people's perceptions about race and explore how people have justified discrimination through perceived differences.

Another display shows differing cultural perceptions about avocados: to us, they are vegetables, but in parts of South America, they are desserts. The same thing applies to perceptions about race, according to the exhibit.

Other components explore issues like equal opportunity in housing, affirmative action and the military's GI Bill with minorities. In the middle of the exhibit, children can play with puppets of multicolored characters.

With the Pittsburgh community sometimes divided racially, people of all races should benefit from exploring “Race” and learning, Shellman says.

“This exhibit is meant to be a resource for the community,” she says. The museum wants to “instigate and instill in people a sense of responsibility ... to begin conversations about race.”

Opening-weekend activities: A talk with curators at 11 a.m. March 29; hands-on artwork from noon to 3 p.m. March 29 and 1 to 4 p.m. March 30; various gallery activities for children and families 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 29 and 12:30 to 4 p.m. March 30; exploring “Race” themes at 11 a.m., 12:30 and 2 p.m. March 29, and 12:30 and 2 p.m. March 30.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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