What is race? This question will face visitors to the Rochester Museum & Science Center when the exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?” opens this January.
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit is filled with moving and uncompromising impressions of the race experience in the United States. It challenges individuals to confront the judgments made about those who look different and the actions taken throughout history because of those differences. Taking nearly four years of planning to bring to Rochester, the exhibit is a community-supported effort that could have long-term impact despite its short-term visit, from Jan. 19 through April 28, 2013.
“It’s a very unique resource,” says Ann Howard, senior associate dean of RIT’s College of Liberal Arts and member of the RACE exhibit steering committee. “Long term, it is a way of getting RIT more directly engaged in the community-wide conversations about institutionalized racism, the social-cultural structure of the community and the barriers to equity that exist here.”
RIT is among a large and growing group of academic, nonprofit, corporate and civic organizations involved in coordinating, funding and promoting the exhibit. The Rochester Area Community Foundation became the lead sponsor this past March, providing $200,000 for the exhibit. Robert Ulin, RIT professor of anthropology, and Kevin McDonald, vice president for diversity and inclusion at RIT, also represent the university on the steering committee. James Norman, president and CEO of local nonprofit organization Action for a Better Community and former RIT Minett Professor, joins them.
“This exhibit is important because a lot of our policies, structures, cultural representations and institutional practices have evolved from a misconception of race,” says Norman, who has led ABC for more than 20 years and instituted numerous advocacy programs in the region. “We are hoping this exhibit creates a new awareness, raises questions and a new sense of urgency. We are looking for people to be open to the idea that the concept of racial inferiority and superiority is not scientifically supported.”
The RACE exhibit, developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, has several parts, one related to the biology of race, to challenge traditional notions about characteristics such as skin color. Another component is the history of racism, and another gives “voice” to people from different ethnic groups who share their experiences of racism.
“The Rochester Museum & Science Center is hosting this powerful exhibit intending that conversations will open our visitors’ minds to the science of race and their hearts to new ways of looking at and thinking about diversity,” says Kate Bennett, RMSC president. “This exhibition and experiences we will sponsor with our partners are designed to have a positive impact on our community. We are excited to work with our partners and we are honored to be the gathering place to stimulate this community dialogue.”
The Rochester Museum & Science Center is no stranger to presenting thought-provoking exhibitions about cultural experiences and scientific discovery. But exhibits come and go, and problems remain, Ulin says. Among minority populations in Rochester, infant mortality, unemployment and poverty rates are higher than the national average. A recent Schott Foundation report on public education indicated that African American males in Rochester’s school district are less likely to graduate from high school; the percentage was the lowest in the nation.
“These issues tend, over time, to reproduce the very inequalities that we hope to address and surpass,” says Ulin, who was instrumental in proposing the exhibit for Rochester after seeing its success in Kalamazoo, Mich., when he served at Western Michigan University before coming to RIT. He’s been its champion ever since.
“The RACE exhibit re-energized the conversation and brought together so many constituents who shared common interests,” he says.
Local inequalities will be addressed and acted upon by a separate community-action group, an off-shoot of the RACE planning team, called Facing Race, Embracing Equity, and made up of people who have a vested interest in making Rochester a more equitable place to live.
“Historically, universities have had the opportunity to be change agents inside social issues, or at least a vehicle for change,” Howard says, “and the more we engage in this dialog on a community level, the more the resources at RIT can help address these incredible disparities we see right in our own city.”
This exhibit is deep,” says James Norman, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community. “It presents some information that people may not have been exposed to before.”
Background information will be available to visitors through the museum’s and the exhibit’s websites, as well as through docents on site, and organizers will be seeking volunteers to be trained as docents for the exhibit. The Gandhi Institute, one of the many community partners involved, will do the training.
Another featured event organized by Robert Ulin, RIT professor of anthropology, will be a discussion about social justice, racism and community action. Yolanda Moses, one of the founders of the exhibit and vice chancellor for diversity at the University of California–Riverside, will anchor the panel that will also include Norman; Jason Younker, associate professor of anthropology at RIT; Michael Blakey, professor of anthropology at William & Mary College and leader of the African Burial Ground Project in New York City; and Judy Kiyama, professor from the University of Rochester Warner School of Education.