Allyship and the Race Exhibit: Reflections Part II

Robert Garfinkle lead the project team that created 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 Allies Part I and Part II). 

In this second post I’d like to address Diana’s critique of the exhibition for not addressing the systemic racism in the criminal justice system. In part it’s because we didn’t have it on our radar in 2005 and 2006, when we were developing the exhibition. That is not an excuse, it is just how I recall it: we should have, but just didn’t go there.

In addition to that, we were looking for stories about systemic racism that would challenge the assumptions of the (mostly white) visitors who come to science and natural history museums. In the front-end research AAA did, and in our conversations with (mostly white) visitors and communities of color, we listened for what were the common rationales people gave for defending race as based in biology. There were things that came up frequently: How could sickle cell anemia and hypertension be “black” diseases if race never really existed? How come blacks are such good athletes? How come there’s obvious visual differences between blacks, Asians, (Northern) Europeans, Native Americans, etc? The Census and the government has these categories; doesn’t that mean they’re real (or at least until so many people started intermarrying?) It’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights laws were passed and economic opportunity opened up; why hasn’t this changed the economic standing of African-Americans? These questions drove our thinking about what to commit our exhibit space to and what stories to tell.

This starts to sound like an excuse; I don’t want it to. The destruction of communities of color, especially African-American communities, is appalling. We should have tackled it. I bet if Michelle Alexander’s incisive analysis was available at the time we developed this we would have gone there. But I do think museums and exhibits, like any medium or activist or organization, should do what are effective at doing. If we can’t engage people, and visitors leave saying, “oh, that was so boring; it was like reading a book on the wall,” that is no good. In fact, that’s the reason we didn’t include anything about sports and race. We tried for a really long time to craft experiences that would evoke that topic for people (ask me about the “Game of Life” exhibit idea sometime) but we ultimately couldn’t find a way to do so that was cogent and engaging.

Museums need to draw people in, need to attract people, and we need to challenge our audiences. This doesn’t excuse us from leading our communities; it doesn’t mean we just give ‘em what they want. I think museums need to both lead and follow; the best combination is when we can make the challenging deeply compelling.

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 nationally traveling exhibition and public engagement project about race, racism, and human variation. Robert can be reached at garfinkle@smm.org.

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What do you think of Robert’s thought that museums should both lead and follow? What are examples of museums successfully balancing both leading and following? 

Have you recently seen the Race exhibit? What have been your thoughts and reactions?

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2 comments

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

  2. [...] Pingback: Allyship and the Race Exhibit: Reflections Part II | the incluseum [...]

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