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The Skin I Live In

A new Science Museum exhibit charts Richmond’s uncomfortable racial past.

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A new Science Museum exhibit on Richmond and race includes a local Woolworth’s lunch counter, the setting for a historic civil rights protest, and the judicial robes of the late U.S. judge Robert Merhige Jr., who integrated city schools. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A new Science Museum exhibit on Richmond and race includes a local Woolworth’s lunch counter, the setting for a historic civil rights protest, and the judicial robes of the late U.S. judge Robert Merhige Jr., who integrated city schools.

In a grainy, black-and-white televised debate from 1960, Richmond News Leader Editor and Massive Resistance leader James J. Kilpatrick coolly lights a cigarette after asking a "negro integration leader" if he will "call off his troops" and stop supporting civil rights protests such as the recent Richmond Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in if the U.S. Supreme Court deems them unlawful.

Speaking in his famous cadenced tenor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. replies: "All should obey just laws. … When we find an unjust law, I think we have a moral obligation to take a stand against it."

That chilling, gripping video snippet is part of the new "35 Blocks" exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia, which tells the story of Race in Richmond within the geographic area from the Science Museum (once a segregated train station) to the State Capitol, where L. Douglas Wilder was inaugurated as the nation's first elected black governor in 1990.

Wilder's inaugural suit is on display, as are the Woolworth's lunch counter (on loan from the Valentine Richmond History Center), a bust of late civil rights warrior Oliver Hill Sr., the office chair of Richmond's first black mayor (state Sen. Henry Marsh) and the judicial robes of the late U.S. Judge Robert Merhige Jr., whose rulings integrated city schools.

"35 Blocks" is a companion exhibit to the traveling national exhibit, "Race: Are We So Different?" On display through April 29 at the Science Museum, "Race" is a project of the American Anthropological Association and paid for by the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

In a city that once was a national slave trading center and the capital of the short-lived Confederate States of America, an exhibit on Race is especially relevant.

Virginia is prominently mentioned throughout the national exhibit, beginning with the fact that in 1691 colonial Virginia codified "white" as a legal term for Race in a law prohibiting marriage between blacks and whites. It also touches on Virginia's eugenics experiments and the landmark, aptly named 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, which ended legal restrictions against biracial marriage.

"One of the big things about the exhibit is getting people to realize that Race is a social construct. There's not a science behind Race," says Richard Conti, the whimsically titled "chief wonder officer" of the Science Museum of Virginia.

"We have lots of things that make us different," he says, "but when we map the human genome, we're more than 99 percent alike. When you think about all the things that do make us different, to select one, which is the amount of melanin [the pigment that creates skin color], and to use that as a way to categorize people is almost kind of silly, right?"

The museum has held a host of companion lectures, exhibits and cultural celebrations in connection with the "Race" exhibit. Nina Jablonski, a noted expert on race and professor of biological anthropology at Penn State University, will discuss "Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color" on March 14. And the Science Museum will hold a Family Cultural Saturday event March 31 celebrating arts and crafts from all cultures.

Initially, Conti says, museum organizers were going to make the Saturday celebrations focus on different cultures, such as Hispanics and African-Americans, but the more they thought about it, the less sense that made. Instead they've held weekend celebrations mixing all cultures, with themes common to all humanity such as food and dancing, attracting crowds of more than 1,200 people.

From a scientific standpoint, categorizing people by Race makes as much sense as categorizing them by blood type, Conti says. Skin color simply is determined by where your ancestors lived and how much melanin they required to protect them from the sun. And everyone harbors false assumptions about Race, sometimes perpetuated by our culture: "You watch CSI and they uncover a skeleton and oh, it's a black male age 30 — but," Conti says, "you can't tell Race by a skeleton," a fact that some of his own museum staff members were surprised to learn.

“Race is a social construct.” This photo from the Science Museum exhibit shows college students wearing T-shirts emblazoned with racial categories. - AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION AND SCIENCE MUSEUM OF MINNESOTA
  • American Anthropological Association and Science Museum of Minnesota
  • “Race is a social construct.” This photo from the Science Museum exhibit shows college students wearing T-shirts emblazoned with racial categories.

Nevertheless, humans are visual creatures. That may explain from a social standpoint why we choose a visual distinction, he says, even if there aren't real scientific differences in our genetic makeup to justify dividing us into groups by skin color.

The concept of defining Race can be an incredibly complex endeavor, too, as the exhibit illustrates with a list of the 234 names that Brazilians have for different shades of skin color. S

Nina Jablonski will speak March 14 at 7 p.m. at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St. "Race: Are We So Different?" is on display at the museum until April 29. For information, visit smv.org or call 864-1400.

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