Seeing Race Before Race

Seeing Race Before Race
Now Open through December 29, 2023
Newberry Library, Chicago

The Newberry Library introduces Seeing Race Before Race, an exhibition that explores race-making in medieval and early modern Europe. Developed in collaboration with the RaceB4Race Collective, this exhibition probes how race developed as a social construct from the Middle Ages to 1800. The exhibition features maps, manuscripts, paintings, printed books, paintings, automata, and woodcuts dating from 1100 to 1800.

These material witnesses show how people categorized each other through distinctions like language, dress, class, geography, and religion—in addition to traits like skin color or facial features—long before the term “race” came into popular use in the nineteenth century.  “Traditional scholarship in Europe and North America has often overlooked race as a social construct prior to the trans-Atlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans,” said Lia Markey, Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library. “Seeing Race Before Race looks at the medieval and Renaissance periods and centers the expertise of BIPOC scholars. The Newberry is uniquely positioned to spark dialog and bring this work to life in the form of an exhibition.”

The exhibition features several collection materials demonstrating race-making at work throughout the medieval period. Bibles and theological manuscripts show the presence and flexibility of racial thinking in medieval Europe; a medieval romance shows how physical features were linked to behaviors and personal character; and Crusade narratives and antisemitic woodcuts remind us of the violence of medieval race and its legacy today.

Seeing Race Before Race, presented in English and Spanish runs through Saturday, December 29 in the Newberry’s Trienens Galleries. Hours are 10am to 7pm Tuesday through Thursday and 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday. Entrance is free of charge.

For more information about the exhibition, its related digital resources and public programs, or scheduling a tour of the exhibition, please contact Christopher Fletcher at

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