Is Race a Social Construct? The Natural History Museum Investigates

The Natural History Museum’s newest exhibition “Race: Are We So Different,” opened on June 18. Here’s a look inside

More on Race: Are We So Different is on view at the Natural History Museum
More on Race: Are We So Different is on view at the Natural History Museum Natural History Museum

Race and racism are complex subjects, but the Natural History Museum takes them on with energy and zeal in a new exhibition, Race: Are We So Different? The show is the first national exhibition to spell out the construct of “race” and all that it encompasses from a biological, cultural and historical point of view.

Race acknowledges the fact that people are different and seeks to examine the historical consequences of the idea of “race.” Visitors can participate in a number of activities and view different materials that help show the impact of race and explain the history of race as a biological concept. The exhibit is staffed with volunteers trained to encourage dialog and reflection. One of the volunteers, Caitlyn Harkin, explained some of the more complex ideas behind the exhibit.

Harkin, who is completing an undergraduate degree in American Studies at George Washington University, underwent up to 30 hours of training to staff the exhibit, learning about the content of the show, strategies for engaging visitors and addressing various race-related issues.

Race: Are We So Different? tackles the issue of race and racism, which can be tricky subjects sometimes. What have been your experiences with race thus far in the exhibit?

There have been some guests that felt objection to certain parts of the exhibit, particularly in the science content, but overall I would say that the reception from the public has been enormously positive. I have talked to many families in the exhibit who have faced, in their lives, many of the issues the content covers, and who have been happy to see such issues addressed in such a prominent forum. And they too have added a great deal to the exhibition. Through their willingness to engage with facilitators and museums guests their own diverse and unique stories have greatly enhanced what Race is trying to do.

Race and racism are important issues in society but are often overlooked, why address them?

Problems never get solved by ignoring them; great social change is never the product of complacency. By bringing the issues that come along with race to the forefront, we are providing an opportunity for people to better understand not only the history and sociology of race, but each other. I truly believe that it is that understanding that is fundamental to human progress in terms of race relations.

The exhibit seeks to show that race is not rooted in biology. Why is this an important fact for people to know and understand?

By discussing the genetics—or lack thereof—of race, we eliminate the argument that there is something fundamentally, on a molecular level, different about people. We are then left to explore what those other social and historical factors are that lead to the development of race as we know it today.

There have been visitors of all ethnicities viewing the exhibition. Does that emphasize the point of the exhibit at all?

While the exhibition is designed to enrich even the most homogenous of audiences, the diversity within the exhibit was excellent, and in many ways it does highlight the undercurrent that runs under everything in the exhibit, which is that race is still a very present and very important thing in this country.

If there was one thing that every exhibit visitor should take away, what would that be?

That race is not inherent in our genetics, but rather a social construct developed over time, which continues to be a strong and ever present force in our country and in our lives.

Race: Are We So Different? will run until January 2, 2012. Volunteers are in the exhibit most days engaging visitors, answering questions and encouraging thoughtful conversation about the question of why people are different, as well as helping visitors explore the exhibit.

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