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New at CHM: “Race: Are We So Different?”

Posted under Exhibitions by Joy L. Bivins

CHM director of curatorial affairs Joy L. Bivins introduces our newest exhibition, explaining its objectives and approach, as well as its significance to Chicago history.

On Saturday, November 11, Race: Are We So Different?, a traveling exhibition that explores the concept of race and the ways that it has shaped American society, opens at the Chicago History Museum. A collaboration between the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota, the project examines race from three different perspectives—science, history, and lived experience. The 5,000-square-foot exhibition illuminates how science has proven many of our ideas about race and racial difference flawed—at the very least—and provides insight into human genetic variation. It also traces the history of race as an idea and how it has changed over time based on economic, political, and social agendas. Lastly, it examines how race impacts people’s lives and life outcomes in the contexts of health, wealth accumulation, and education. In short, Race covers a lot of territory and could not have arrived at CHM at a better time.


The exhibition features a variety of multimedia interactives that provide insight into race and its effects on citizens. Photograph by CHM staff

Why do I feel this exhibition is arriving at a crucial time? We are in a moment when issues of race and racism appear more frequent and pronounced than they have been in recent memory. Media sources inform us that intolerance and hatred are on the rise, not only in the United States but in other areas of the world. Events in Charleston, South Carolina, Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere could lead one to conclude that we are on the precipice of a new, yet eerily familiar, wave of racial violence. History, however, warns against judging the present without thoughtful reflection on our collective past. That past reveals that race, and by extension racism has been omnipresent, in our nation and in Chicago, informing systems that shape our lives and have regular impact on us as citizens from the education we receive to where we live. Race provides content, context, and a potential platform to help us have those required dialogues as we wrestle with the fact that issues many thought were settled remain very much with us.


CHM AV technology manager Ben Minnis closes a panel after adjusting some settings on the film “We All Live With Race.” Photograph by CHM staff


Visitors can see how racial categories have changed throughout American history and how they would have been classified in previous US censuses. Image courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota

Discussions about race are difficult for many of us. Guilt, anger, shame, misunderstanding, and a host of other emotions may arise. But, it is increasingly clear that the difficult conversations that lead to greater understanding and action are imperative. Race: Are We So Different? presents ample immersive, interactive, and media opportunities to start and maintain conversations about this small yet powerful word. CHM invites you to learn more by visiting the exhibition and attending the civic conversations we are hosting in 2018. In January and February, CHM will explore how race has affected life in Chicago in areas such as housing, education, and politics through two civic talks moderated by WBEZ’s Natalie Moore.

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