Can genetic material tell you a person's race?
That's one of the questions visitors will be asked as they move through "Race," an exhibit opening Saturday at Discovery Place.
Most will get it wrong - genetics can't show the difference.
In fact, the exhibit points out, humans are more genetically alike than any other living species. No one gene can support the idea of race.
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Though racial passions have long steered the course of history, the concept of race seems to be a uniquely human invention.
"Science has created a whole new understanding of the topic," says John Mackay, president and CEO of Discovery Place. "Race as a concept is really not supportable through biology. For me, that's a pretty profound shift."
The "Race" science exhibit opens as Charlotte is experiencing new racial turbulence, including school reassignments and one assertion that the city is a "racist bastion." But the traveling exhibit has been planned for about two years as Discovery Place's first big project after 18 months of renovations.
"Race" also opens as another major exhibition, the "Courage" project at neighboring Levine Museum of the New South, focuses on the early struggles for school desegregation.
The timing was a coincidence, says Mackay, who notes the "Race" exhibit would probably be topical - and as provocative - at any juncture in recent history. "I can't think of a topic more relevant," he says.
The exhibit was created by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota. It has been shown in Michigan, Phoenix, St. Louis, Boston and Los Angeles. Its Charlotte exhibition will be the first in the Southeast.
Among the elements of "Race":
In a mock school cafeteria, visitors can listen to teen perspectives in a "Youth on Race" video from a multiracial high school theater troupe.
Visitors can scan their skin and see it compared with the hues of other visitors, then consider whether skin color equates with race.
Through a microscope, visitors can examine their own skin and learn what causes color variations.
Political, economic and social forces that forged the concept of race in the 17th and 18th centuries are examined in the "Living With Race Theater."
A census exhibit shows how views of racial identity have changed over the years, and visitors can vote on how racial classification should be treated by the census.
In cities that have hosted the exhibition, one of the most surprising elements has been "Who's Talking?", where visitors try to match voices with photos of people's faces by listening to tone and inflection.
Seeking broader discussion
Discovery Place executives visited "Race" when it was on display in Detroit and were impressed by the discussions it spawned, says Debra Smul, the museum's vice president of marketing.
Joanie Philipp, director of major projects, said casual conversations between strangers are inspired by the content and occur wherever "Race" is shown. In Charlotte, an area will be set aside to provide such chemistry.
After touring the exhibit, by appointment, small groups can participate in facilitated discussions on the topics, Smul says. "There's an area with informal seating for people to engage in informal discussions," she says.