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‘Science of race’

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

New exhibit at Museum of Science explores social problem with scientific lens

Why do we come in different colors? Can forensic investigators determine race from skeletal evidence? Is race a biological reality or a social construct?

“RACE: Are We So Different?” aims to answer these questions. The new exhibit at the Museum of Science illuminates the hard science of human differences along with the history and the contemporary experience of race in our country.

“This exhibit really takes head-on the issues related to race,” said Paul Fontaine, the Museum’s vice president of education. “What’s interesting is, when you look at it from a scientific basis, there’s no scientific evidence for the existence of race. But the fact that normal variation makes us look different has had powerful ramifications in our society.”

Fontaine described the exhibit as looking at a social issue through a scientific lens.

During the RACE exhibit’s opening weekend, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, visitors of all colors filled the space. Parents with children, seniors in wheelchairs, teenagers, solitary adults and middle-aged couples all browsed the displays, reading text, watching videos and taking quizzes such as “Who is white?” (It’s not as clear as you think.)

The bench in front of the exhibit’s introductory video filled and refilled; friends and couples called to one another to take a look at this or that display.

“Did you see the sickle cell one?” one elderly black woman asked another.

Sickle cell anemia is not specific to blacks, the display says, but to groups whose ancestors lived in malaria-prone areas. An example shows an Ohio man of Sicilian ancestry. It took a decade of pain for doctors to correctly diagnose his illness, because it was so hard to imagine finding the disease in a white person.

In answer to the color question, a cross-section diagram of the skin reveals the melanocyte cells that make skin darker. “All skin colors, light or dark, are due not to race but to adaptation for life under the sun,” the display declares.

Nevertheless, no science can disprove that skin color dramatically affects people’s lives. With that in mind, a good chunk of the exhibit is devoted to recent history, such as Jim Crow laws, and enduring consequences of racism.

One display shows how housing discrimination and neighborhood segregation have led to an immense wealth gap — represented starkly by stacks of bills of various heights.

A compelling 50-minute video has adults of various ethnicities talking candidly, at some length, about race in their lives. A mixed-race couple talks about the “triple-takes” they got when pushing a baby stroller together. A Hispanic man recalls with still-fresh pain the fear and humiliation of being menaced by white boys in a Minnesota school.

Watching a group of young black women friends listening intently to a middle-aged white guy discussing his failings as a teacher to face the issue of slavery truthfully, one can’t help thinking this is far more than these teens might have stuck around for in a different forum.

Outside the exhibit, West Roxbury High School student Krystal, 15, said the displays held some surprises for her.

“The money,” she said, referring to the wealth disparities display, in which the Asian stack was slightly lower than the white one. “I thought Asians made the most.”

Krystal was there with a group of teens from Amplifyme, an organization that trains teens in video and music production.

“You’re never going to be able to include it all, but it’s great to see the science broken down, some facts laid out,” said Wesley Richardson, an Amplifyme media arts and media literacy teacher. “And it’s good to have it be a multimedia experience.”

The RACE exhibit was developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, where it premiered in 2007.

Here in Boston, the planning for RACE began about a year ago, said Nina Nolan, chair of the museum’s education team for the RACE exhibit. Nolan’s team worked with more than 150 local community and academic organizations to develop local programs to complement and expand on the exhibit’s themes.

“We wanted to have Boston’s voice and rich diversity represented,” said Nolan.

The brainstorming resulted in a variety of supplementary programs. On opening weekend, scientists from Tufts University presented data they’ve gathered about the intersection of air pollution with low-income and minority communities along the Highway 93 corridor through Dorchester, Chinatown and Somerville. Actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith is slated to perform April 27.

The RACE exhibit runs through May 15. For more information on related lectures, forums and projects, see www.mos.org/race.

At the exhibit on MLK Day, two young men with coffee-dark skin watched a video in the “Creating Race” display. One historian cites Thomas Jefferson, a man of lofty aims and goals, but who, as a slave owner, didn’t live up to his own words about liberty. “Our nation was born with a major contradiction at its core,” the historian says.

Above this video screen hung a banner with text from the Declaration of Independence. Contradiction aside, one of the young men raised his mobile phone to snap a picture of some highlighted words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”