Museum’s ‘Race’ Scores With Businesses

Ron Stodghill, Charlotte Observer, March 27, 2011

When Discovery Place opened the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit last month, it wasn’t hard to imagine the display inspiring a science-based kumbaya moment.

Over the past six weeks, museum attendance has hit 48,000, a 40 percent increase over the same period last year, driven largely by the popularity of its exhibit.

What’s more intriguing, though, is that museum officials say the spike in attendance is based largely on the exhibit’s popularity among corporate groups. Companies are using the exhibit, and an ancillary program dubbed “Race Exchange,” to hold what may as well be off-site diversity seminars.

Some 90 business groups are booked for the exhibit, which ends in early May. As part of the program, the groups, which average some 20 participants, air their thoughts on issues ranging from racial stereotypes that hurt upward mobility to the pride people should take in their racial heritage.

The exhibit’s timing has proven fortuitous, says Logan Stewart, a marketing manager for Discovery Place, noting that “Race” opened amid the brouhaha of plans by the white nationalist organization American Renaissance to host its annual convention in Charlotte. After protests the group, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ended up canceling.

Add to that planned closings of schools and libraries–many in black neighborhoods–and local NAACP head Rev. Kojo Nantambu dubbing Charlotte a “racist bastion,” and there’s a whole heap of race baggage to unload.

The exhibit makes a powerful point: that the age-old arguments over race tend to be misguided. It uses plenty of cool photos, artifacts and multimedia activities to underscore that humans are more alike than different; in fact, genetically, we’re virtually carbon copies compared to other living species.

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Of course, companies themselves contribute to making race the hot-button topic it is. As the economy slowly picks up, for example, most minorities are finding it tougher than whites to climb back into the workplace.

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For now, at least, we’ll have to take healthy race talk wherever we can get it.

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