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Understanding race

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Carlina Duan, Community Culture Editor
Published February 7, 2013

The Museum of Natural History sits serenely on the corner of Geddes Avenue. A simple, unassuming building of mahogany brick and cream walls, the museum invites visitors to shimmy inside. When you enter, you’re greeted by a solemn map of planet earth, sprawling across the walls. Behind glass cases, Michigan wildflowers and owls peer from branches. A mineral collection glimmers from the hallway, boasting rocks studded with glamorous, jewel-like crystals.

“Race: Are We So Different”

At first glance, typical museumgoer expectations are met. The building is an elementary-school student’s fantasy — prime for exploration, with its dinosaur skeletons, stuffed possums and built-in planetarium. Yet among the “standard” museum gear, the Museum of Natural History will feature a special exhibit this semester — one that ties in with the University’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts Theme Semester: Understanding Race.

The museum will showcase the traveling exhibit “RACE: Are We So Different?” from Feb. 9 through May 27.

Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, first saw the exhibit in 2007 at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, and explained the process of bringing the exhibit to campus.

“I thought it was fantastic, but I ruled it out because it was too big,” she said, referring to her initial hesitation to bring the exhibit to the museum.

The exhibit itself was developed by the American Anthropological Association, in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. “RACE” takes a new approach to the study of race and ethnicity that Harris hopes will spotlight and enrich conversations about race.

“The exhibit looks at race from three different thematic perspectives,” Harris explained. “One is looking at the science of human variation. Another is the historical concept of the socially-constructed idea of race. And the third is a living exhibit of race — looking at the ways racism is embedded in our institutions, in health disparities, wealth disparities.”

In fact, the theme semester was devised with the “RACE” exhibit in mind. After deciding to bring the exhibit to the museum, Harris and colleagues proposed the “Understanding Race” theme to the Dean of LSA, who then selected the theme out of an array of other proposals.

Harris said she believes the theme semester will encourage necessary discussions about race that are relevant to present day. Harris noted that studies have shown that by the year 2040, people of color will become the majority of the population in the United States.

Linking together a collective audience

Frank Provenzano, who works with Harris on the Understanding Race Project, summarized its necessity: “Race is a part of everything and we need to talk about it in a very reasonable way — without people thinking we’re obsessed with race. We want a healthier national discourse.”

LSA senior Noel Gordon, a student coordinator for the Understanding Race Project and a member of the theme semester student steering committee, noted that conversations about race are especially applicable to the current college-age generation of Americans.

“There are a lot of changing demographics that are happening culturally, politically (and) socioeconomically that are all tied with race,” Gordon said. “It’ll be really important for us to talk across difference, so we can move together to inhabit this new world and take advantage of all the great things it’ll have to offer us.”

In order to help the community better engage in these conversations about race, the creation of the Understanding Race Theme Semester led to the Understanding Race Project, a program intended to link overlapping audiences on campus and in the community. The project involves three audiences: the University campus community, the K-12 schools and the broader Ann Arbor community.