New OMSI Exhibit Explores Race

Are We So Different?

By bePortland
Sep 19 7:00am

Though each of us is as unique as our fingerprint, humans across all walks of life actually have more in common than ever previously imagined. A new exhibit about the science of human variation at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) will challenge visitors to consider race in a new light. RACE: Are We So Different?, opening Wednesday, September 26, is the first national exhibition to tell the story of race from biological, cultural, and historical points of view.


Offering an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States, RACE was developed by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota.  The exhibit introduces the idea of race as a primarily social construct as opposed to physical reality, presenting a contemporary scientific understanding of human variation that challenges the idea of racial differences and even questions the very concept of race. RACE at OMSI is sponsored locally by The Standard and was created with generous funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Ford Foundation.


“The concept of race has not always existed,” notes exhibit contributor Robert Garfinkle of the Science Museum of Minnesota. “This exhibit reveals that sorting people by physical differences is a recent invention, only a few hundred years old.  Current science tells us that all humans share a common ancestry and the differences we see among people are gradual variations, not discrete categories of different peoples.  Humans have always migrated and mixed, not just recently but ever since our origins in Africa.


“The exhibit elaborates on the reflection that while race is the least important aspect in determining character, it is often the most significant factor in how we are perceived. The truth is: human beings are more alike genetically than virtually any other species on the planet.”


The RACE exhibit addresses the topics of race and racism from three different perspectives, interwoven to tell a compelling story with lasting impact. 


Science: In this section of the exhibit, visitors will discover that human beings are more alike than any other living species, and no one gene or set of genes can support the idea of race.


History: Ideas about race have been around for hundreds of years, and they have changed over time.  This section of RACE demonstrates that, throughout American history, economic interests, popular culture, science, politics, and the struggle for power have played a role in shaping our understanding of race. 


Everyday experience: Though race may not be a real biological concept, it certainly is real both socially and culturally.  In this section of the exhibit, visitors will explore the personal experiences of race in our schools, neighborhoods, health care systems, sports and entertainment industries, and more.


Highlights include:


- Who’s Talking? is an activity with surprising results that invites visitors to match voices with people in photos based on speech patterns and inflection.


- An exploration of the United States Census demonstrates how our conception of race is ever-changing and has morphed throughout American history according to social, economic, and political forces. 


- The work of photographer Wing Young Huie, which captures – in ways large and small – the lives of diverse individuals and communities across the country.


- The Living with Race Video Kiosk, where visitors can hear people talking about their experiences with race and racism.  Examples include a person talking about becoming aware of her white privilege, another talking about growing up Korean in a white family, and yet another discussing what it’s like to be a part of a multi-racial couple.


- Youth on Race is a video featuring high schoolers relating their views of racial identity and how they differ from those of their parents.

As stated by the AAA, throughout history, people’s differences have been a source of community strength and personal identity, but they’ve also been the basis for discrimination and oppression.

“Our hope is that this exhibit will initiate some profound discussions,” says Stueber.


The price of the exhibit is included in paid museum admission. Members are free. For more information, visit the OMSI website.

RACE: Are We So Different runs September 26-January1, 2012