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Mashantucket Pequot Museum exhibit explores race and racism

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - It is well known that people look different. It's easy to tell a white person from a black person, or an Asian from an Arab. It's obvious that people have different skin colors, eye shapes and hair textures. But are these differences racial? What is race, anyway? Is it real?

These questions and others about the myths and reality - and unreality - about race and racism in America are explored in a new high-tech multimedia exhibition at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, called ''RACE: Are We So Different?''

Probing the complex topic of race through science, history, human variation and everyday experiences using videos, still photography, artifacts, iconic objects, interactive components, computers, local programming and graphic displays. It challenges how we think about race, or human variation, and about the differences and similarities among people.

Displays fill the museum's 4,200-square-foot Mashantucket Gallery. On entering, visitors are confronted with the question, ''What is race?'' Once inside, the topic is addressed in dozens of presentations from multiple perspectives.

One called ''Human Variation,'' differences are explored through height, molecular science, genetics, health and the broad spectrum of skin colors.

''When you begin to understand the biology of human variation, you have to ask yourself, 'Is race a good way to describe that?''' said Janis Hutchinson, a biological anthropologist. The display includes a video of scientists discussing their research about human differences and their conclusion that there is no biological basis to race.

Another display includes an activity that allows visitors to scan their skin and watch their shade appear as a color ''chip'' on a big computer screen mosaic next to chips from dozens of other visitors.

''History: The Story of Race,'' asks the question: How did the idea of race begin in America? A movie and timeline of events beginning in the 1500s with the advent of European settlers provide an overview of how ideas in science, government, culture, pop culture and politics have played a role in shaping our evolving understanding about race.

''Race is so deeply embedded in our lives, it appears to be the natural order of things. We must challenge that notion with all the power of science and society,'' Yolanda Moses, an anthropologist, says in one of the exhibits.

Exhibit highlights include ''Who's Talking?'' - an activity inviting visitors to match voices they hear with people in photos based on speech patterns and inflection; a race-based survey of housing in some big urban areas; the ''Living with Race'' theater where visitors can hear - and respond to - people talking about their experiences with race and racism; an exploration of the U.S. Census that invites visitors to answer the question of whether race should be eliminated from the census report; and a study of high blood pressure that reveals the complexity of race, racism and medicine.

A special supplemental exhibit called ''RACE Matters in Indian New England'' explores the history of Native communities in New England ''through race-colored glasses.'' The less someone ''looked Indian,'' the easier it was to claim Indians no longer existed. The exhibit uses census records, historic photographs and a series of print advertisements that reveal how the dominant culture has viewed Indians.

An old print ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, for example, has an illustration of an Indian holding a hatchet attacking a white man with the words: ''Nature in the raw is seldom mild.'' The cigarette company is boasting that the tobacco in its cigarettes is toasted, unlike the ''raw'' nature of the Indian.

''RACE'' is not without its own controversy, however. One exhibit claims that all of humanity shares a common ancestry that developed in Africa, a claim that some American Indians have disputed.

Kimberly Hatcher-White, a tribal member and the museum's executive director, related the issues raised in the exhibit to the experiences of the northern woodland Indians in general and the Mashantucket in particular, whose intermarriages have resulted in a racial diversity that it nonetheless unified by Indian ancestry.

''For Native people, in particular those from New England, issues of race and cultural identity, like other people of color, have always been at the forefront of our struggles both internally and externally. We just do not fit into the stereotype of what the majority of people think Native people should look like. We are the 'other.'''

She stressed the importance of having the exhibit at Mashantucket as ''the first step in ensuring that this museum focuses on issues that are relevant to not only Native people, but to all people. It's an opportunity for conversations regarding an issue that is very difficult for people to talk about, even in our own homes. We hope that people will walk away understanding that there is only one race and that is the human race.''

The exhibit was developed by the American Anthropological Association with the Science Museum of Minnesota, and has been recognized by the American Association of Museums with its 2008 Excellence in Exhibition Award, one of only four exhibits to receive the honor.

The exhibit runs through Sept. 7 at the museum, 110 Pequot Trail, daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It's free with museum admission, $15 for adults; $13 seniors; $10 children; and free for children under 6.

For more information, call (800) 411-9671 or visit www.pequotmuseum.org.