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The Skin You’re In

It protects our bodies, and carries the weight of our human missteps.

Dorothy Woodend 29 Mar

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Skin is much more than a protective barrier. Whether it’s the tough hide of a black rhino or the dual capacity of salmon to exist in both fresh and salt water enabled by a process called osmoregulation, skin is some pretty darn useful stuff.

In the case of octopuses, it is a means of communication through colour and pattern. There’s lots of other equally interesting manifestations, in horn, hoof, scales and feathers beyond human skin.

Skin: Living Armor, Evolving Identity, Science World’s most recent exhibition, takes as its premise the stuff that covers us. The skin we’re all in, in other words.

Like most exhibitions at Science World, there’s a wealth of fascinating information, everything from how skin functions in the animal kingdom to the migration patterns of ancient humans.

In amongst the interactive elements — touching, feeling, messing about — some startling facts leap out, like the tidbit that skin makes up a good portion of an average human’s weight. Everyone knows that skin is the largest organ in the body, but if you stripped it off and spread it out, as has been done in more than a few ancient torture scenarios, the average person has more than two metres of the stuff. As the show duly informs, that’s almost the size of your average twin mattress. Cool. I think, if lying on a bed made of human skin is your thing. In which case, remind me to avoid you.

Some of the strangest details are also the smallest, hello to our friends the microorganisms. The exhibition explains how researchers have been able to trace the path of ancient human migration even through the lowly mites that take up residence on our faces. Mites have established regional populations around the globe, like humans, and can represent their host population for up to three years even after people move across it. While each host’s ecosystem is unique, folks share mite lineages with those they are extremely close to, like parents, children and partners. Gross? Yes! But, like a lot of scientific facts, deeply interesting.

On the left, a young person with long hair stands in a dim exhibit space, to the side of an apparatus of rotating panels that reflect microscopic enlargements of skin. On the right, the rotating panels show different animals. A person in an orange shirt stands to the right facing away from the camera.
Mites live on the skin of every mammal that has been sampled, except for those that lay eggs — but scientists need to get very close to see them. Left photo via Science Museum of Minnesota, right photo via Science World.

Here is where things get more complicated. To its credit, the exhibition does more than just skim the surface of things, so, be prepared to have some complicated conversations. That’s not a bad thing, however, and Science World is actually a pretty good place to do it.

Even on a quiet Monday morning, the place is thronged with children and their somewhat bleary looking parents. As a critical resource for kids and families, Science World walks a delicate line between providing real world information in digestible and accessible bits and pieces, and more complex stuff.

To wit: “Visitors will investigate the layers of meaning humans have associated with skin colour throughout history and how our ever-evolving social and political climate has influenced shifting ideas of race and culture in our modern world.”

Which is a gentle way of saying that humans are kind of nuts, when it comes to the matter of skin colour.

It may be interesting, and easier, to ponder the ability of elephants to feel vibrations in their feet from kilometres away than it is to parse the reasons why humans oppress and exploit other humans on the basis of their skin colour. But in explaining something as fraught as prejudice to a six-year-old kid, can the Skin exhibit open up useful and practical avenues for talking about race? A gently qualified yes.

The show comes at an interesting moment in the ongoing culture wars that seem to break out every day, spot fires of rage and injustice.

Given the younger nature of the overall audiences at Science World, it’s little wonder that the tone of the displays is purposefully gentle and introduced with a number of warnings about sensitive materials. But as the debate over freedom of thought and expression appears to be picking up speed, it’s a reminder that early educational forms a critical bulwark against later indoctrination.

The exhibition tackles not only how institutional injustice like residential schools systematically devastated generations of Indigenous people, but it also offers concrete, hopeful and practical solutions that different communities have embraced to mitigate and help heal this destruction. Whether it’s people rediscovering ancestral foodstuffs or addressing injustice in housing, medicine, policing and other social aspects, there’s some positive pathways out from our often bleak history.

It is interesting to think about the exhibition in light of Shary Boyle’s Outside the Palace of Me at the Vancouver Art Gallery, that also seeks to open up avenues or ways to engage with race, albeit in a more oblique fashion.

But Science World has, well, science on its side, and a degree of thought, information and logic that can be brought to bear on the worst of human ideas. Not to imply that scientific research is above its human practitioners, teeming with their own less than-rational prejudice and fear, like so many facial mites, but at least science aspires to some kind of greater understanding.

The human habit of creating elaborate and systemic means of classifying other humans by the amount of melanin in their skin is at best destructive and at worst pure evil. The oddest thing is that it persists, even after so much effort and thought has been funnelled into counteracting this oddity of humanity.

Whether or not an exhibition at Science World makes a dint in undoing racism, it does open up ways to enter into the conversation with younger children. After you’ve unpacked one of the most troubling aspects of human nature, you can marvel at the wonders of rhino horns, fish scales and the number of nerve endings in a human hand (more than 17,000) no matter what colour it is.

‘Skin: Living Armor, Evolving Identity’ is on display at Science World until May 29.  [Tyee]

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