New Exhibit at Cal Academy Explores the Science & Culture of Skin

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?

Sam: Yeah, I am. It covers my body.

Ronin (1998)

A new exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences “Skin: Loving Armor, Evolving Identity” explores the “beauty and sophistication of this organ through rarely seen scientific specimens, fascinating interactives, and thought-provoking investigations of a challenging subject that’s far from black and white.”

Last night I got to visit this exhibit for a member’s preview party. As a former staff member, I knew about the project, and was excited to finally see it unveiled to the public.

The main entrance of the exhibit presents a variety of simulated skins that you can touch, from rough hides, to sharp spikes, fur, feathers, and scales.

As you move through the exhibit, you encounter various specimens showing all the ways that different animals skins have adapted to protect them in their environments. This large rhino specimen is really wonderful to see out on display!

Another section explores how you are able to detect vibrations, heat, pressure and texture through your skin.

The final section of the exhibit deals with all of the societal and cultural associations humans have connected to skin tone. Science was used to justify value judgements of different groups of people based on their skin tone, including Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1767), which classified people into several categories, including:

  • The Americanus: red, choleraic, righteous; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines, and regulated by customs.
  • The Europeanus: white, sanguine, browny; with abundant, long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws.
  • The Asiaticus: yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and ruled by opinions.
  • The Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips; females without shame; mammary glands give milk abundantly; crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; anoints himself with grease; and governed by caprice.

The exhibit explores some of the worst examples of racial bias and discrimination over time.

But the exhibit ends on a positive note, highlighting various groups that have been working to combat racism and intolerance, through culture, arts, economic empowerment, and political change.

This was certainly the most socially relevant exhibit that the Cal Academy has presented since I’ve been there. The exhibit philosophy details some of the thinking behind why:

…the Color & Culture section of this exhibit presents the topics of racism, prejudice, and discrimination through the lenses of history and science. These topics are undoubtedly difficult, complex, and distressing, and we included them within this exhibit because we feel that scientific institutions like the Academy have a duty—today more than ever—to call attention to the fact that human-created constructs of race and identity have shaped and divided humanity throughout history.

I hope that the exhibit provokes important conversations among people who visit it. These kinds of civic exchanges are needed more than ever.

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