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Understanding RACE: Duke Faculty Assist State Museum on Exhibit

Duke's GRID program sponsors conversations at State Museum of Natural Sciences

An exhibit about race at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences challenges our understanding of the concept of races. Photo courtesy NC Museum of Natural Sciences.
An exhibit at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences challenges our understanding of the concept of races. Photo courtesy NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

While conversations on race very often have a focus on human differences, a Duke academic program is helping a state museum turn the topic on its head and instead explore how we are so similar.

Charmaine Royal, director of the Duke Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference (GRID), and her team are collaborating with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh on the free exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?”.

Ten years ago, the American Anthropological Association, with funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation, designed the traveling exhibit to inform the public about race and the science behind human variation. Exhibit organizers said the thrust is that there is no biological basis for race in humans.

Charmaine Royal The exhibit, which opened at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences on April 22 of this year, explores how the concept of human races was created, the history of race in the United States and how racism affects everyday life. Exhibit visitors can reexamine their own perspectives on and experiences with race through compelling interactive displays, visual images and digital stories.  

Royal, associate professor of African and African American Studies, Biology, and Community and Family Medicine, said both the exhibit and subsequent opportunities for reflection on the content and implications of the exhibit engage visitors.

The exhibit explores the historical, cultural and pseudo-scientific justifications for supposed racial differences over the centuries. By viewing race, ethnicity and other cultural categories used to identify humans through the lenses of science and history, visitors are educated about human variation. Ideas of differences that are believed to be natural and inherent are shown to be constructs of human societies.

“When people use racial categories without thinking about what they really mean, it reflects and reinforces the idea that these categories are a function of our biology at the most basic level of who we are as humans, and they really aren’t,” Royal said.

“From the feedback we’ve received, people who have come to see the exhibit have found it illuminating,” Royal said. “The exhibit confronts and challenges longstanding assumptions about scientific underpinnings of race. It provokes visitors and encourages them to think and talk.”

A visitor explores the exhibit on race at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

Royal added that some people were surprised that a state museum in North Carolina had an exhibit on race.

“I think it is so important that RACE is there, especially at this moment in our history,” she said, “and the museum has also benefited. Since it opened in April, the exhibit has attracted over 64,000 visitors, many of whom had not previously visited the museum. RACE is one of the museum’s most successful exhibits ever, and is allowing the museum to reach a more diverse audience.”

The exhibit is free because of generous funding from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation (primary sponsor) and several other sponsors such as Duke Energy Foundation, City of Raleigh, Wells Fargo, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, BB&T, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the University of North Carolina, Triangle Community Foundation, Paul Green Foundation, NC Humanities Council, and YMCA of the Triangle.

Royal said that in addition to advising on programming and evaluation, GRID sponsors the Cultural Conversations program held every weekend (and some weekdays) at the museum during the six months of exhibit. Cultural Conversations occur in the Think Space, a tranquil dedicated room, where visitors to the exhibit can share their thoughts and opinions on the exhibit and their experiences with race and racism. These open and honest discussions, involving a maximum of 25 people, are led by local trained facilitators and experts in race relations and social justice.

“As expressed by countless other participants, the Cultural Conversations in which I participated were moving and memorable,” Royal said. “The sessions are restricted to 90 minutes. Invariably, participants said they wished there had been more time to engage in dialogue and process their thoughts and feelings.”

The exhibit uses history, science and experience to explore human difference.

Royal said she hopes visitors will take away the understanding that from one so-called race to the next, we are much more similar than different -- regardless of what we look like.

The traveling RACE exhibit has been to more than 40 US cities over the past ten years. The exhibit and its associated website have been viewed by well over 4 million people.

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences will house the RACE exhibit until October 22, 2017. The exhibit then travels to Chicago. The response of exhibitgoers here has been so positive that GRID and other sponsors are working with museum organizers to explore and implement ideas for leveraging the momentum generated by this successful public science education initiative.

“What we’ve heard from many visitors is that they want this exhibit to continue,” Royal said.  “The goal and content of the exhibit are what GRID’s work is all about. So we will continue to collaborate with the museum and other partners to see how we can collectively sustain and expand the groundswell of public interest, in an effort to transform our state and our nation.”

The exhibit encourages young people to examine the history and science of our concept of race.