Can Exhibits be Allies? Part I

In October, we had the pleasure of visiting the exhibit Race: Are we so Different? at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). After the visit, we participated in a facilitated Talking Circle with University of Washington (UW) Museology graduate students taking a Museums and Social Issues class. We asked Diana Falchuk, who co-teaches the Museums and Social Issues class, is a Masters of Social Work student, and interns at the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, to share her perspectives on the exhibit. This will be the first of two posts.  

Image from RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit, now at OMSI in Portland, OR

Image from RACE: Are We So Different? exhibit, now at OMSI in Portland, OR

Can exhibits be allies?

Race and racism are particularly unpopular topics in the mainstream, despite glaring and historic race-based inequities in every aspect of our society. The false and unfortunate notion that we’re living in a post-racial era gets bandied about all too much these days. It’s as if one black president (one who can’t even get angry or talk about racism without being called anti-white, or worse, charged with the impossible term “reversed racism”) has erased racism. Not so. Just ask any person of color.

So what are museums doing to correct this wrong and move our society toward equity?

Last week, I and my co-instructor for Museums and Social Issues, Kris Morrissey (founder of the course and also Director of the UW Museology Program), accompanied students to see the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different?, currently on view at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). The first of its kind, the exhibit examines race through three “lenses”: history, human variation, and lived experience. It was created by a multi-racial team of exhibit designers working for the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, with funding from Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation – some heavy hitters. It’s been touring since January 2007 and has planned locations through January 2015. Eight years. Impressive.

Equally impressive is the exhibit itself. It has that rare balance between text, visual media, audio, and interactives. For me, the most memorable installations included a wall of eight quotes from activists, journalists, politicians, and other leaders about whether Obama’s presidency signals a post-racial era (only one quote suggests it does), a layout of text and old newspapers on the use of American Indian tribes as school mascots, and a series of photographic portraits of people of all races, many of them mixed, with statements in their own handwriting about the complexity and individuality of their identities.

The exhibit successfully debunks the myth that race is genetic; presents a thorough history of explicitly racist laws and the civil rights movement; and explores examples of institutional racism (policies, practices, and procedures that benefit white people to the detriment of people of color, often without intention) such as in medicine, land rights, and housing. A major blind spot exists where the War on Drugs and the mass, disproportionate incarceration of people of color should be explained. The U.S. has the largest corrections population in the world and the Sentencing Project estimates that people of color comprise 60 percent of that population. (People of color only make up 36 percent of the total U.S. population.) There are more black and brown people in prisons in the U.S. today than there were imprisoned in South Africa during Apartheid.

I wonder how this significant, pervasive piece of institutional and structural racism was omitted? On several levels, this absence surprised and bothered me.* My experience with the criminal justice system, thanks in large part to my privilege as a white woman, has been exclusively through choice. My museums work has included designing and running programs in juvenile detention centers and with young people on probation and parole. I’m currently finishing a Masters in Social Work at the University of Washington and working on issues of institutional racism surrounding the prison industrial complex through an internship with the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative.

As a white woman who has worked in and with museums for many years and who is now beginning to do intentional anti-racism work in my community, I was looking for an overall sense that the exhibit was “doing the work”: not just naming race as a social construct and explaining institutional and structural racism, but also giving us all a sense of what we can do about the racism in our lives today. The question for me was how an exhibit could do this with the general population in a science center, as opposed to a grassroots organizing campaign, a social work classroom, or a committee convened to advocate for racial equity in a city policy.

I was looking for clues that the exhibit engaged in allyship. 

To be continued…

* (I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with one of the exhibit designers for RACE: Are We So Different? and have a strong sense of trust and respect for the design team and its process; I hope to unpack this in a future post.)

Diana Falchuk is a consultant, artist, and educator with 12 years experience developing, managing, and teaching arts-based programming and policy, primarily in partnership with the juvenile and adult justice systems, and through museums. She is a part-time instructor in the Museology Graduate Program at the University of Washington where she is also a second year Masters of Social Work student interning at the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative. You can contact her at diana@dianafalchuk.com

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6 comments

  1. Interesting

  2. [...] to the exhibit soon, but for now, check out the first of a two-part post about the exhibit here on The Incluseum’s [...]

  3. [...] your posts Can Exhibits be Allies Part I and Part II represent a fabulous set of writings about museums, race, and the Race: Are We So [...]

  4. [...] acts as a reply to Diana Falchuk’s recent reaction to the exhibit (Can Exhibits be Allies Part I and Part [...]

  5. [...] on The Incluseum Blog, we have had a number of professionals, including Diana Falchuk, Chieko Phillips, and Robert Garfinkle, weigh-in on representations of race in museums, allyship, [...]

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