Photo courtesy of the Renton History Museum.

All museum exhibitions require extensive planning, but especially so when the exhibit deals with complex topics like race and representation. In this guest post, Renton History Museum staffers Elizabeth P. Stewart, Director, Sarah Samson, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, and Kim Owens, Public Engagement Coordinator give us some insight into their preparations for Sorting Out Race, open March 30 through May 17.

Preparations are well underway for our upcoming exhibit, Sorting Out Race: Examining Racial Identity & Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations, a traveling exhibit organized by the Kauffman Museum in Bethel, Kansas. The Kauffman Museum organized this exhibit in response to questions from thrift shop and antique store operators in their community who were concerned about putting harmful stereotypes on the shelves of their stores. The exhibit uses these thrift store donations with derogatory racial and ethnic imagery to open a conversation about identity. Are these items harmless reminders of past attitudes, or do they perpetuate harmful stereotypes? Should they be “sorted out” of American life permanently?

Our initial planning asked: How do we incorporate the Renton perspective? What unique challenges will this exhibit face in Renton? Are our staff and volunteers prepared to engage in the kinds of conversations an exhibit about race may inspire? With these questions in mind, we have been working with our volunteers, interns, the Renton School District, and our specially organized Community Advisory Committee to develop opportunities for dialogue, learning, and enjoying cultural expression. It was very important to us that we include perspectives from outside the Museum in the process of developing the programming and Renton-focused exhibit. While this exhibit is the next step in a long line of work we’ve been doing, an exhibit explicitly taking on race is something we’ve never done before. Having community stakeholders involved was key to creating a well-considered exhibit experience.

Working with our community stakeholders has been highly rewarding. Our Community Advisory Committee provided insightful suggestions regarding programming, marketing, and how the Renton community might interact with this exhibit. They asked questions we never thought to and played devil’s advocate when considering new ideas. The Renton School District and Renton High School also offered their input for our companion exhibit, Renton High School Indians: The History of a Name. We always add a Renton-specific component to accompany all the traveling exhibits we host. This time we are focusing on the name of the local high school, the Indians; how it came about in 1920, what it meant with the rise of the American Indian Movement, and what it means now.

Two interns from UW’s Museology program have been helping us on this project. Megumi Nagata has spent two quarters working on the programming and marketing aspects of the exhibit. Grayson Dirk has been interviewing professionals at other institutions about their experiences with social justice exhibitions to identify best practices. He also created a Sorting Out Race-specific summative evaluation.

We have put together our largest calendar of events ever for a single exhibit, with opportunities to learn about many of the diverse communities that make up the city of Renton. With help from our interns and Community Advisory Committee, we created a schedule of twelve programs and events that offer opportunities for people of all ages to attend. Some programs, like our storytelling events, offer insights into different cultures and ways of thinking. Others, like our facilitated dialogue and panel discussion, allow for more critical conversations of the exhibit and race relations.

This exhibit will provoke many questions to which there are no easy answers. At a moment when the world seems more polarized than ever, these objects and images will make us all uncomfortable, but that is not a reason to look away. Throughout its modern history Renton has been a community of immigrants. With each new wave the community has wrestled with finding ways to move forward together. The Renton History Museum has a role to play in that: opening conversations about sometimes controversial issues, serving as a space for dialogue and discussion, and providing facts that inform those discussions.