Native American dioramas at University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History to be removed
The decision puts an end to the debate over whether the 14 dioramas - the second most popular exhibit at the museum - should be displayed among the dinosaurs, taxidermy and fossils and minerals of the natural history museum.
Amy Harris, the director of the museum, has been studying the issue since she assumed the post in 2001 and made the decision to remove them. An overlay exhibit explaining the decision went up a week ago.
A number of concerns have been expressed over the years, Harris said.
Among them: The dioramas are dated and depict an entire culture with tiny figures in small boxes. There is no context - the dioramas appear alongside prehistoric animals and fossils but no other cultural group. And the dioramas freeze a culture at a time from the past without depicting how that culture has moved into the present.
But in the end, Harris said it was most important to consider the wishes of the Native American community.
Not long after she took over the reins of the museum, Harris attended a workshop at the Smithsonian Institution on how museums should work with living subjects.
“They talked about how we must collaborate with communities (represented in museums), and give a voice to how their culture is depicted,” she said.
Back home, a Native American Committee of faculty, students, staff and the community was formed. The exhibit was relabeled and a new exhibit was added with information explaining contemporary Native American culture.
Still, the relabeling didn’t address many of the concerns, said Philip Deloria, professor of Native American studies, American culture and history at U-M.
“There was still the small-people-in-boxes syndrome,” he said.Â
The problem, he said, “is that the experience they create for Native Americans and non-Native Americans is separate and different. Native people - not all Native people - feel they are very alienating, particularly with children.”Â
When Native American children visit the dioramas with their classmates, they often hear comments that Native Americans are extinct - like the dinosaurs in the museum - or bad, Deloria said.
And the dioramas were still out of context, sharing space at a natural history museum with mastodons but no other cultural group. While they may not be historically inaccurate, they stereotype the Native American experience and fail to explore deeper meanings, Deloria said. Information about the culture, music, beliefs and stories was still missing.
That doesn’t mean the dioramas aren’t interesting, Deloria said. “They have a fascinating character to them. It’s like stepping back into the 1950s. There’s nostalgia and they are artfully done. Curiously, that’s part of the paradox: They are so fascinating. They are so dated.”
Zoologist Robert Butsch, who went on to become director of the museum, made the dioramas in the 1950s and 1960s. They include six Michigan tribes, four as they would have looked at Colonial contact and two from more ancient times. The other eight represent cultural groups from across North America.
Even after the relabeling, Harris continued to hear concerns about the displays. One student offered a critique, creating a mock diorama that included tourist trinkets and plastic figurines. There was a protest in 2007.Â
“I realized the efforts had not been successful and I decided to remove them,” Harris said.Â
While there have been questions about the Jan. 4 removal, there has been no counter-protest to keep them, Harris said. Still, the debate continues at other museums on whether to include culture in a natural history museum.
The dioramas will be kept in storage, and the space will be filled with geology, mineral and astronomy exhibits. That will make room elsewhere in the museum for a new exhibit on archeology, which debuts Sept. 25.
Janet Miller is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com.