116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In a museum filled with artifacts telling the story of a specific cultural heritage, the latest exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library focuses on the stories within us all, emanating from implicit bias.
A Smithsonian affiliate since 2019, the Cedar Rapids museum in the heart of Czech Village is the first site in Iowa and the second in the nation to host the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibition, “The Bias Inside Us.”
A 40-city tour launched in St. Paul, Minn., in January, and is on view in Cedar Rapids through May 16, before traveling to the Chicago area. It then will come to the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines from July 10 to Aug. 8, and on to other parts of the country through April 2025.
Developed by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the project’s website declares: “What can we do about bias? A lot.”
A series of panels, videos, personal accounts and interactive elements installed in the museum’s Smith Gallery explore six facets: the bias inside us, the science of bias, bias in real life, its consequences, ways to retrain our brains, and personal reflections.
All are designed to “raise awareness about the science and history of bias,” with the project’s developers noting that "bias is inside everyone. It is part of being human.”
The exhibit’s overarching goals are to help people understand and counter their implicit biases; increase empathy through sparking community dialogues; and to inspire more inclusivity in schools, communities and workplaces. Educational resources, links to the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab and webinars are listed at biasinsideus.si.edu/learn-more
What: “The Bias Inside Us,” Smithsonian traveling exhibit
Where: Smith Gallery, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
When: Through May 16
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $10 general, $9 ages 65 and over, $5 students and active military and veterans, $3 ages 6 to 13, free ages 5 and under and Museum members; masks required, ncsml.org/ncsml-announces-reopening-plan/
Related: “Implicit bias: Is there hope for change?” Virtual talk with Tessa Charlesworth, whose research helped shape the exhibit, 6 to 7 p.m. May 6; free but reservations required at ncsml.org/event/implicit-bias-is-there-hope-for-change/
Exhibit website: biasinsideus.si.edu/
It’s kind of unique for us, this type of exhibit,” said Stefanie Kohn, the National Czech & Slovak Museum’s curator. “It’s got a lot of science in it — biological science and social science. We do tend to have a lot of history and culture and art in our museum, so we don’t often have the biological sciences and the social sciences represented, so that’s a little bit different for us.
“It’s got a lot of panels and monitors and graphics and things — there’s no artifacts in it,” she said. “It’s a lot of information presented in different ways, but not an artifact-type exhibit where you’re looking at something in a case.
“It’s almost more of an experience that you’re having.”
A good fit
While the museum typically focuses on past and present stories of Czech and Slovak people and issues past and present, the Smithsonian exhibit dovetails with the museum and its mission, Kohn said.
“Part of our mission and our values are that we celebrate freedom and identity and human dignity, because the Czechs and Slovaks have been oppressed and have lived through some difficult times throughout the history of the Czech and Slovak republics,” she said. “Going back hundreds and thousands of years, they’ve had their struggles, so we always try to be sensitive to the dignity of all people.
“Also, we see ourselves. There can be biases against immigrants, so that’s one type of bias that we can see for ourselves. It used to be that immigrants from Eastern Europe were not allowed in,” she noted. “There was a quota system in the 1920s where very few immigrants from eastern and central Europe were allowed into the United States, because there was a thought that they weren’t as good as immigrants from northern Europe.
“So that’s something that we are aware of. That’s our take on it — immigrants and people from other countries can be discriminated against or people can have a bias against them.”
The installation also stretches the museum’s scope and reach.
“We think it’s important to not always have the obvious exhibits. There are great exhibits we produce, great exhibits we bring in, but we also want to tell a story bigger than ourselves,” said Jim Miller, the museum’s vice president for development and marketing.
“One of our central focuses is the immigration story … to try and try and tell a story people can connect to, whether they’re Czech or Slovak or not,” he added.
The museum applied to host the exhibit two years ago. No one knew then how critical the conversations about bias would be right now.
“With our Smithsonian connection, we thought this (exhibit) would be intriguing,” Miller said, “that we would be one of the first, and certainly the first in Iowa (to show it). But also to say, these kind of exhibits help us tell a bigger story. Immigration and culture and where we all come from is about as topical as can be.”
He said it’s appropriate for all ages, and has sparked discussion among the museum’s staff members, who walked through the exhibit as it was being installed.
“It raises questions — and it should raise questions,” Miller said. “It makes you think about things … and just the conversations and questions that were raised were really interesting — and for all of us to admit, we’re all biased. Yes, it’s the obvious racial, sex, gender bias.”
But other biases also came to mind. Miller said his colleagues mentioned knowing people who had negative attitudes toward those who are overweight or covered with tattoos. So he said this exhibit can help viewers dig deeper and recognize their biases.
“It’s just to make you think,” he said. “Part of the exhibit is a full wall of photos with a pantone color attached to people’s skin color.”
Studying that wall can help viewers understand how they feel and react when seeing the various skin colors.
“It makes you think, and as (Kohn) said, probably have some uncomfortable thoughts or uncomfortable conversations, but important.”
Heightened self-awareness is the key to affecting change.
“I think people might actually realize that they might have an implicit bias that they maybe weren’t even aware of,” Kohn said, “and they might be encouraged to just stop and think for a moment before you make a judgment about a person, a group or a situation.”
One example the exhibit cites is hearing footsteps behind you at night.
“Are you afraid or not? Depending on who’s behind you, are you more fearful or are you going to relax,” Kohn said. “Everybody is going to feel (something). Your own idea of what you’re afraid of, or what’s acceptable to you, is going to determine your reaction to that.”
“Biases form over a lifetime,” as noted in the “Retrain Your Brain” section.“ Our thought patterns can’t be undone overnight. With practice, personal commitment and education, anything we learn can be unlearned.”
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