New Davenport exhibit challenges assumptions on race

DAVENPORT, Iowa - Have you ever wondered what the big deal is about Indian mascots for sports teams? Why Chief Illiniwek was retired from the University of Illinois or why the Washington Redskins are criticized for their name?

Have you ever asked someone who looks Asian where they are from and were puzzled when they seemed to take offence?

Have you ever considered why an African-American might be chosen for a job over an equally or better-qualified white candidate?

If you sincerely want insight into those questions, then Kim Findlay, president and CEO of the Putnam Museum and Science Center in Davenport, invites you to visit its new exhibit, "Race: Are We So Different?"

Developed in 2007 by the American Anthropological Association, the exhibit fills two rooms on the main floor, exploring through text, artifacts and video the history, science and lived experience of race, or how the world reacts to you based on your looks.

The exhibit that continues to June 2 begins with the possibly mind-altering statement that "race" doesn't really exist. It is a human invention based on skin colour and other exterior physical characteristics when there is, as Findlay said, "no science behind that whatsoever."

Findlay understands her statement challenges assumptions many people take as fact, a world view handed down by their parents and grandparents.

"And now you're telling me that's not so?" Findlay asked. "That's unsettling. They (parents and grandparents) were the authority figures in our lives."

Findlay invites visitors to approach the exhibit with an open heart and an open mind, and she hopes it promotes discussion, the Quad-City Times reported.

By the time people have walked through, read and listened to all the displays, they may "be at a point of openness and awareness to have that discussion that's very difficult to have right now," Findlay said, referring to talking about race in America in 2019.

"Maybe it's always been difficult because we're afraid of using the wrong words. But how do we make progress if we don't talk to each other? We're talking about grasping that moment and having that conversation."

To that end, she is inviting people — families, church groups, book clubs, businesses, schools — to contact the museum about setting up guided discussions at the Putnam. And near the end of exhibit there are chairs and a sofa where people can talk about, or reflect on, what they have seen, right then and there.

The exhibit starts at the beginning, with visitors walking over a world map affixed to the floor with text that explains "We are all African." That is, all people — no matter where they live or what they look like — can be traced back to ancestors from Africa, near what is now the country of Kenya.

From there humans ventured forth to populate the world and, depending on the climate or other environmental factors, developed different looks.

Text explains race did not exist in Europe until about the 1500s. People were distinguished by religion, with Christianity on one side and Jews, Muslims and pagans on the other, but race had not been "invented."

Then white Europeans began exploring the world, encountering people who looked different and, for the most part, the Europeans began subjugating those people, feeling justified because they considered themselves superior.

"Race was not found in nature but was made up by people in power," an exhibit sign states. "It justified privilege and oppression."

Some of the displays might make a visitor wince. There are slave shackles from 1830s South Carolina. A drinking fountain sign points whites in one direction and "colored" in another. A poster proclaims "Indian Land For Sale."

And a timeline of American history documents race distinctions through the years: The 1790 law that only free white persons could become U.S. citizens. The 1882 law that excluded Chinese from citizenship. The Japanese internments of 1942. Pictures showing Native American children in boarding schools where they were forced to wear "civilized" clothing and hairstyles and forbidden to speak their language or practice their customs.

In the lived experience section, there is a station set up like a high school cafeteria table, and playing on the screen in front of it is a discussion among high schoolers of all colours, talking about "Where do you sit in the cafeteria?"

It's a very candid discussion about how the students feel about themselves and their classmates.

For the Putnam, "our goal is to do our best to ensure that this exhibit doesn't end when it leaves," Findlay said. "We want to ensure that the 'aha' moments go beyond the time it's here physically."

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Information from: Quad-City Times, http://www.qctimes.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Quad-City Times.


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