Published: Jan. 13, 2011

Evolution and Martin Luther King Jr.: Different but the same

Contact(s): Paulette Granberry Russell Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives office: (517) 353-3924, Kristen Parker Media Communications office: (517) 353-8942 cell: (517) 980-0709, James Lawton Art and Art History office: (517) 355-7637

EAST LANSING, Mich. — As the country remembers Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for social justice, a Michigan State University artist and professor has created a first-of-its kind multimedia exhibition blending ideas of ancestry, identity and equality. 

“Evolutionary Artifacts” will be on display in the MSU Museum’s Heritage Gallery from Jan. 17 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) through April 3. Created by James Lawton, professor of sculpture in the Department of Art and Art History, the installation combines museum artifacts, voice recordings, photos uploaded from around the world and Lawton’s 20th-century family photographs printed on Plexiglas.

Imagine these sights and sounds: family photographs projected on walls; stone tools, a family photo album, items representing diversity from the 2000 census; ancestral names recorded in native languages by some of Lawton’s students and MSU international students; and the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” playing in the background.

In the center of the gallery is an evolutionary journey: Mounted on one wall is a fetal ultrasound (future) and on the opposite an artist’s rendering of “Lucy,” a 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus believed to be the most famous ancestor (past). Connecting the past to the future are Plexiglas images of Lawton’s relatives hung by a conveyor belt. 

“This is more than just seeing art; it’s experiencing it,” Lawton said. “I hope to instill in participants a frozen moment in time in their search of the past. While this work focuses on issues of identity, acceptance and dignity, it also illuminates the unifying aspect of humanity and human history.”

In other words, he says, the exhibit is an illustration of the dream King had for equality of the human race.

So far, Lawton has received about 200 photos – from 1800s portraits to holiday gatherings to graduations – but hopes to receive thousands. People can continue to upload photos through a website he created.

“What makes this interactive installation unique is the interdisciplinary aspects – art, science and technology – and the globalization through use of the Internet,” Lawton said. “It establishes an ongoing dialogue between the artist, the audience and the museum and introduces new ways for history to be recorded, documented and preserved.”

There will be an opening reception 4 p.m. Jan. 17 at the MSU Museum, including a performance by Acts for Justice, a community of MSU Honors College students dedicated to increasing public awareness of social justice and equality through performance art.

Other MLK celebration events include:

  • Student Leadership Conference – This year’s conference will feature the first Social Justice Case Competition, in which high school students from around the state will present a topic that focuses on social justice. Hoping to foster potential Spartans, students will learn how to conduct research, write position papers and speak publicly.  Running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Kellogg Center, students will lead workshops around this year’s MLK theme, “Global Voices for Justice.”
  • Commemorative March – Starting at 3 p.m. Jan 17, MSU faculty, students and staff will march from the Union to Beaumont Tower in honor of civil rights marches. In recognition of the theme, the march will include chants and singing. 
  • Health equity – Khan Nedd, an internal medicine physician in MSU’s College of Human Medicine, will discuss the importance and hurdles of providing care to the medically underserved as part of the college's annual program honoring King. Nedd, whose program is called "Health Equity: Providing Quality Care to the Underserved in Our Communities," will speak at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at 130 Secchia Center in Grand Rapids. The event will be simulcast to MSU's East Lansing campus in A133 Life Sciences Building.
  • Slavery to Freedom – As part of its 11th annual lecture series during Black History Month, the College of Osteopathic Medicine is welcoming a trio of civil rights icons who have played vital roles in race relations throughout the past several decades. Performer and author Bernice Johnson Reagon, historian Taylor Branch and activist Shirley Sherrod will speak Feb. 3, 10 and 17, respectively.

“From Dr. Lawton’s exhibit to the Student Leadership Conference to the Commemorative March, we remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of hope,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, director of MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. “As we focus on issues of identity and heritage, I’m proud that more than 40,000 students have the opportunity to celebrate diversity while appreciating human equality.”


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.


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James Lawton, professor of sculpture, created "Evolutionary Artifacts," a multimedia exhibition that focuses on human equality and social justice. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

James Lawton, professor of sculpture, created "Evolutionary Artifacts," a multimedia exhibition that focuses on human equality and social justice. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

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