Allyship and the Race Exhibit: Reflections Part I

Robert Garfinkle lead the project team that created the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? The post below is the first of two and is intended to act as a reply to Diana Falchuk’s recent reaction to the exhibit (Can Exhibits be Allies Part I and Part II). 

Diana, 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 Different? exhibit. Thanks for taking the time to commit these thoughtful ideas for the community to share.

I’m the exhibit designer Diana was referencing. I was the project leader for the development of the Race: Are We So Different? exhibition, which was a collaboration between the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and my institution, the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM). I was fortunate to get to meet Diana and spend a hour and a half with her, Kris Morrissey, and their class on Museums and Social Issues at the University of Washington in early October. This was before they saw the Race exhibit; I got to share with them some of my perspective on this work and answer some of their questions before they went.

Diana, you raise lots of good points here. I want to address your question about exhibits as allies, and perhaps shed some light on your critique of the exhibition for not addressing incarceration and racism in a second post.

My short answer is, yes, I believe exhibits can be allies, as you define it. Exhibits can function as advocates, seeking to dismantle the system of oppression that it (the museum) benefits from. Institutions and exhibits do this by bringing to public view work that challenges the status quo, that makes the community confront difficult truths about itself. And exhibits are allies to people targeted by oppression when they advocate for causes, provide calls to action for their visitors and communities. The most telling form of allyship is when the institution itself, in all its work, sets itself up against systems of oppression. Many institutions centered geographically and/or culturally within communities of oppression invite allyship, but I think largely white institutions that commit themselves to this work are most to the point here: I’m thinking of examples such as the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, or the Tenement Museum in New York. I’m sure there are others that I’m not thinking of and I apologize for not including others; but the point is that white
institutions can attempt to counter the privilege it benefits from, and that is true allyship.

I’d like to think the Race exhibition served as an ally by some broad definition, but I actually think, in large measure, we chose not to take an explicit position as ally or advocate. Yes, we shared stories of people who had transformative experiences as allies; you referenced the story of Jonathan Odell in your piece. And we had opportunities for visitors to leave their own stories and comments, which I think invites reflection and possibly builds allyship. But as a whole, the exhibit chose not to explicitly call people to action. Why, you may ask? The short answer is, both AAA and SMM meant to take on a different role.

From AAA’s perspective, what we were there to do was to present the current scientific understanding of human variation and the historical and contemporary interpretation of race in the U.S. This meant focusing on revealing sociocultural systems, research findings, historical analysis, etc. Challenging people’s notions of race was and is an ambitious challenge. From SMM’s perspective, we advocated for engagement and accessibility. We felt that any idea or analysis that was manifested in the exhibit had to be interesting, engaging, sometimes interactive, approachable. We need to get everyone, especially white people, to come. Combined, what the Race exhibit creators sought to do was to challenge (white) people’s long-held conceptions about what race is and isn’t. In large measure, we want people to decide for themselves what that means for them. We chose not to advocate for a position; we chose to advocate for uncovering and hopefully changing people’s paradigms about the biological basis of race and the interpretation of history and experience that flows from that.

I felt then, and feel now, that this was the right approach. While I have many specific regrets (including not addressing institutional racism in a number of arenas, including criminal justice), what this approach yielded was unique in the landscape of exhibits and public education efforts. There are many, many organizations in our communities who advocate for positions, principles, and policy changes related to racism. They were doing it before we came along, and are continuing to do that after the exhibit has left. I saw no margin in duplicating their effort. I hoped then, and hope now, that the Race exhibit provides all anti-racism activists leverage to broaden their base, educate their supporters and political representatives, and energize their activities.

Many people use California Newsreel’s Race: the Power of an Illusion, a PBS- broadcast series from 2003, in a similar way. I’d like to think Race serves a similar purpose, in a different medium. The exhibit medium’s strength is that it creates a community safe space for issues to arise; it focuses a community’s attention by providing broad access to a common set of issues; and it catalyzes community
conversation.

To be continued…

Robert Garfinkle leads the Science and Social Change Initiative at the Science Museum of Minnesota. He led the project team that created Race: Are We So Different?, a national traveling exhibition and public engagement project about race, racism, and human variation. Robert can be reached at garfinkle@smm.org.

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3 comments

  1. [...] the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? The discussion below is a continuation of his first post, Allyship and the Race Exhibit: Reflections Part I, which acts as a reply to Diana Falchuk’s recent reaction to the exhibit (Can Exhibits be [...]

  2. [...] next year. For the perspective of Robert Garfinkle, who was the project lead on this exhibit, see this post and this post on the Incluseum's [...]

  3. [...] 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, and the role of museums as a place for [...]

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