It might be a coincidence, but two major Seattle museums are both talking about race right now, and from two very different approaches. At the Pacific Science Center, Race deals with the facts with the biology, the history, the anthropology and the social issues, with an exhibit thats visually dull but gets down to some factual nitty-gritty. At the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience, artists take on the topic with a highly subjective but visually powerful point of view in Under My Skin. Both are up for the next month.
As youd expect from a science museum, Race: Are We So Different? is low on creative visuals but high on thought-provoking facts. Organized by the American Anthropological Association (understandingrace.org), Race is a traveling show, and these often dont really mesh with the space they occupy, relying on blow-up photo-texts and a few small artifacts. The interactive element is fairly lame, including scanning your skin under a microscope, lifting fact flaps and button-pressing your opinion on something. But dont be put off. Race is not just a hot-button topic for discussion (something the PacSci Center is hoping will spin out of its discussion seating areas) but full of facts that, put together, make a compelling, disturbing and highly political case.
Take the history timeline, which shows how the European concept of race evolved from the Renaissance, when folks pigeon-holed people according to religion, through the Age of Explorations need to explain conquered people as inferior savages, through the Age of Enlightenments classification of people into races according to behavior and Thomas Jeffersons statement that all men are equal (except the blacks who were inferior) and on into the 19th- and 20th-century horrors of phrenology and eugenics.
The science cuts deep, interviewing biologists, geneticists and so on (thankfully, coming from a wide variety of ethnicities) to explain that, actually, theres no such thing as any clear genetic sub-grouping of humans that would lead to a concept of race. Says microbiologist Pilar Ossario, Races are things we impose. The exhibit goes on to assess that imposition and its social implications, from health to economics to education to justice. Theres a lot of wasted opportunity (like the giant floor map of migration, which could easily have been interactive) and boring head-shot interviews. But the overall impression underlined by Kip Fulbecks stunning Hapa multi-racial portrait series is that everyones marvelously different and also, fundamentally, much more similar than our society would have us believe.
Over at the Wing Luke, what follows in Under My Skin is a varied but compelling artistic picture of just how those differences are experienced in the field. National and regional artists contribute, with varying levels of professionalism, to this feel it view of race. It opens powerfully with Akiko Jacksons huge wheel of braided black synthetic hair, an homage to her own hair which makes her feel like the only person who looks like (she does). The conversation goes on with Jenny Asarnows locally inspired installation The Corner, about the make-up of the neighborhood at 23rd and Union Streets; with Naima Lowes delightfully naïve-seeming letterpressed grid of 39 Questions for White People (if youre white and you balk at the question What do white people talk about? then youve gotten the point); with the eloquent wire sculptures of life-size East African girls by Seattle artist Mary Coss. Theres a U.S. flag made out of fortune cookies, a collage of newspaper words made into a tipping refugee boat, a net of thorny branches catching origami birds. Some parts of Under My Skin are disappointing the photographs are superficial, some multimedia works are trite but the overall experience is a meditative complement to the Pacific Science Centers hard facts.
Race: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday (closed Tuesday) through Jan. 5, 2014. $18 general/$16 seniors/$13 ages 6-15/$10 ages 3-5. Pacific Science Center, Seattle Center, 200 2nd Ave. N, Seattle. 206-443-2001, pacificsciencecenter.org
Under My Skin: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Nov. 17. $12.95 general/$9.95 senior, student/$8.95 ages 5-12/free for under-5. Wing Luke Museum, 719 S. King St., Seattle. 206-623-5124, wingluke.org
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org