Whether we like it or not, everyone has tiny arachnids living on their face.
As part of the natural skin ecosystem, these microscopic organisms stay busy feeding on dead skin cells, mating and laying eggs. While we do share these mites with our children and partners, that’s about as far as they go. Scientists are fascinated by them because they reveal our evolutionary DNA.
Coming to terms with your face mites is just one aspect of the Science Museum of Virginia’s new exhibit, “Skin: Living Armor, Evolving Identity.” Likely to be as compelling to adults as children, the exhibit explores more than just the scientific properties of different types of human and animal skin, it also dives into the societal constructs associated with skin to spark conversations about skin’s role in shaping human culture and identity. Weaving together culture, evolution, economics and genetics, the story of skin –a versatile organ that represents 15% of our body weight –celebrates the diversity of an organ that is distinct and essential to each species.
More than an outer covering, skin is the connector to the outside world, armor and sensor, air conditioner and heater. Skin is a factory that creates structure; and if it looks good, so much the better. Plumage protects the skin of birds, whose epidermis tends to be thinner than mammals. The color and pattern variations in various animal coats come from different kinds and amounts of melanin pigment in the animals’ bodies. Visitors can admire the distinctive patterning of both leopard and zebra pelts in the exhibit. Those who prefer to learn by touching can feel fish scales, python skin and sea otter fur. A magnifying lens allows closer examination of the rough texture and ridges of a tiger shark’s skin.
A major strength of the exhibit is how up-to-the-minute relevant it is. A wall of faces depicts the “Sepia Rainbow,” demonstrating how two pigments make for infinite shades of human skin. An interactive map shows the role melanin plays in the diversity of human skin, and how skin tones evolved to either protect people from UV rays or absorb enough rays to generate vitamin D, which is essential to the body.
Timelines allow a peek into the past to examine the social construct of race and pigment, and its political fluidity throughout human history. Scientists, philosophers, judges, politicians, and ordinary citizens have all played roles in creating racial concepts. Touch a screen and you’ll see how differently people would have been counted during the 1790, 1870, 1960 and 2000 censuses as more specific categories were created to reflect a diverse population.
University of California, Los Angeles historian Robin D.G. Kelley is quoted in the exhibit as saying, “Race was never just a matter of categories, it was a matter of creating hierarchies.” Many people who are considered white today would not have been considered so in 1861 when it meant solely Protestant Anglo-Americans. It took time for Greek, Hungarian and Italian immigrants to be considered white, which by the 1940s came to mean pan-European.
Also highlighted are some of the more shameful examples of attitudes toward non-whites. From Native American children separated from parents and home and sent to off-reservation boarding schools to anti-Chinese violence and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the U.S., skin color was used to label and divide. A braided pigtail over a yard long hangs in a display case to illustrate San Francisco’s Queue Ordinance which empowered law enforcement to cut off the traditional braids of Chinese men simply because of their skin color.
Closer to home, many laws and institutions built in values and cultural norms rooted in unfounded beliefs in the differences between the races. The exhibit highlights many of the ways that skin color affects lives. For example, areas that were redlined caused mortgage lenders to deny loans to would-be homebuyers in certain areas of a community, often because of the racial make-up of the applicant's neighborhood. With home ownership denied, many Blacks had no way of wealth building for themselves or their children. Despite the percentage of people who sell drugs (1.39% for Blacks and 1.31% for whites) and who use drugs (16% for Blacks and 19% for whites) Blacks are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses, proving many inequalities are rooted in ideas of race, not reality.
“Just like skin can regenerate itself, so too can our cultural associations and assumptions about skin,” explains SMV Director of Education Timshel Purdum. “Bringing this exhibition to Richmond appealed to us because it prompts guests to keep discussing how social constructs and scientific understanding impacts their life long after they leave the Science Museum.”
“Skin: Living Armor, Evolving Identity” runs April 30 through Jan. 15, 2023 at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St., smv.org