Notoriously difficult to define, perhaps the best place to start is to state that “race” is a fiction, a constructed set of categories designed to consign and confine peoples into reductive types. We might think then, that discussions about race are best left to theorists studying the measurable sociological effects of prejudice and disadvantage or to those studying how “race” is represented in culture. However, museum collections have an intimate connection to how dominant understandings of “race” came into existence and so have a significant amount of work to do in examining and undoing the legacies of this that we still live with today. The age of imperial exploration was characterised not just by military conquest, but by the imperative to collect and categorise the natural world, including its diverse peoples and cultures.
Explorers, military personnel and human traffickers alike collected botanical and biological specimens in a quest to understand the world through dividing it into binary classifications. This later included the transportation (sometimes consensual, but oftentimes not) of people for typological study and live display.These practices were instrumental in cementing ideas of racial hierarchy and difference that have echoes today.
The use of inverted commas attempts to signal to both the falseness of understanding race as a fixed concept and the malleability of such ideas. Whilst nowadays we may think that the boundaries that define our understandings of race are unmovable, actually the parameters that seem to define groups are constantly shifting and re-making themselves in politically expedient ways. The inverted commas then, attempt to question the term itself, and point us towards a critical understanding of its history and future place in social and cultural discussions.