When the subject is race, Museum of Science takes multimedia approach

Displays draw on science, culture, history, and politics

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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Although it most likely goes unnoticed at the time, white people get introduced to the irrational rationality of race early on — very early. “All right, children,’’ the kindergarten teacher says, “please draw a picture of yourself.’’ So little Johnny and little Janey reach for their Crayola boxes. Do they take out a white crayon to color in their skin? Of course not. They take out a peach one. In a further twist, that particular crayon was introduced in 1949 as “flesh.’’ The good people at Binney & Smith changed the name in 1962 at the urging of civil rights groups.

If that isn’t lesson enough, white folks get another chance a few grades later when they use their crayons to color in maps for geography class. Surely, no child — Caucasian or otherwise — has ever instinctively reached for peach when coloring in the Caucasus Mountains.

It’s just such confounding illogic that motivates “RACE: Are We So Different?’’ which opens today at the Museum of Science and runs through May 15. Developed by the American Anthropological Association, the exhibition draws on science and culture, history and politics. It surveys race as concept and the almost always unfortunate consequences that concept has had and continues to have.

Race is a relatively recent term, dating from the Age of Discovery, with its many European encounters with non-European others. (Of course, go back far enough, and we’re all non-Europeans, humankind having originated in Africa.) The first legal use of the word “white’’ in America wasn’t until 1691, when the increasing importance of slavery added a whole new dimension of complexity to the concept of race.

A better word than “concept’’ would be “construct.’’ That’s what race is. Black and white and yellow and red aren’t biological categories as, say, male and female are. Race is more of a social, or even psychological, category, as class is; and, like class, it owes far more to culture and society than it does to genetics.

Does that surprise you? Consider the fact, as “RACE’’ reminds us, that such fundamental physical characteristics as blood type and fingerprint pattern are not racially determined. Or that even something commonly assumed to be a function of race, sickle cell anemia, is associated genetically not with race but regions with endemic malaria — as we learn from a display about an Italian-American man with the condition.

The sheer unpredictability of race is brought home more happily by a display called “Who’s talking?’’ It consists of photographs of a dozen men and women with audio of them speaking. Which voice belongs to which person? Spoiler alert: The blond guy with rosy cheeks has a spliff-thick Jamaican accent.

“Who’s talking?’’ is one of many multimedia stations in “RACE.’’ There are videos, timelines, interactive displays. Some of the interactivity is of the old-fashioned sort. Pencils and paper are provided to let museumgoers answer questions like “How does racism affect you at school?’’ and “What’s your story?’’

Race is an abstraction, and abstractions tend to work better on the page than in a gallery. So the variety of displays is part of an effort to make “RACE’’ as involving as possible without vulgarizing the subject. The Museum of Science is to be commended for presenting such a show, which is about as far as you can get from such crowd-pleasers as “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination’’ or “Harry Potter: The Exhibition.’’

That said, there’s a slightly unreal quality to “RACE.’’ It’s like a field trip to an AV-heavy lecture hall. Nearly all the many experts whose words we hear or read are academics, and there’s a wearying didacticism to the show. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to hope for more vocational diversity from an exhibition put together by an academic organization. But one increasingly misses the contributions of a poet or artist or (hey, why not?) comedian. A little bit of Chris Rock would go a very long way here — or even just a photograph of Richard Pryor’s Mudbone would lift the heart and narrow the eye.

Precisely because race is a social construct, any truly worthwhile treatment of it — and don’t think children are unable to pick up on over-simplification — needs as much nuance and subtlety as we can expect to encounter in our daily lives. “RACE’’ offers up the profound, the sweeping, and the trivial with little differentiation. One can support affirmative action, for example, and still wonder about the presence of a display called “Affirmative action: undoing inequality.’’ That’s not science or even sociology; that’s politics. Right or wrong, some people think affirmative action furthers inequality. Another display is called “White — the color of money.’’ It shows stacks of dollar bills whose height corresponds to the relative wealth of whites, Asians, blacks, Latinos, and “others’’ in US society. A section on discrimination and real estate has two street signs, “Privilege Place’’ and “Racism Road.’’ It’s like an MSNBC production of “Sesame Street.’’ Tendentiousness is no less tendentious for being in a good cause.

There are a handful of objects exhibited that have an expressivity far beyond anything else in the show. A set of slave shackles from mid-19th-century South Carolina has a vividness and particularity — a shamefulness, too — that are breathtaking. A hair-color table proposes an ascending scale from dark and kinky to blond and wavy. The speciousness of its lunatic precision is hilarious — until one notices it’s from 1920s Germany. A head-measuring device from the 1930s looks like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. As it happens, the instrument belonged to an African-American anthropologist. Like the best parts of “RACE,’’ it defeats our expectations.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

RACE: Are We So Different?

At: the Museum of Science, 1 Science Park, through May 15. 617-723-2500,