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Removing Dioramas Provokes Debate

The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

Thinking of Native American dioramas as merely a harmless miniature depiction of an early way of life is like considering a computer as simply a modified typewriter. There’s more than meets the eye, and plenty of implications to consider.

What may have been once an effective means to portray how artifacts were used in context of early Native American civilization has become inexpedient, often evoking pejorative connotations, and sometimes fostering perceptions of Indians as “frozen in time,” said Amy Harris, director of the University of Michigan’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History.

In early January, 14 dioramas at the museum will be taken from public viewing and placed in storage. Until then, Harris said the dioramas are a catalyst for a broader discussion about the role of museums, and the proper portrayal of Native Americans, the only people relegated to be “presented” in natural history museums.

“We were concerned that we were leaving the impression that Native Americans are extinct, just like the dinosaurs on the second floor,” said Harris, who, since 2000 has met regularly with a range of constituents, including U-M faculty, students and Native Americans around the state. The goal was to gauge the effectiveness of exhibits. Harris soon found out the dioramas were offensive and perpetuated negative attitudes.

Harris made the decision to remove the dioramas with the support of LSA Dean Terry McDonald and the faculty in the Native American Studies Program. “This decision is guided by the university’s and the exhibit museum’s dedication to advancing scholarship and best practices, collaboration, and support of our diverse community,” said Harris.

There was added incentive to make the change in the current LSA theme year, “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy,” and at a time when museums around the world have also been facing issues about the depiction of native populations.

“Each of these Native American dioramas purports to represent an entire culture, inevitably resorting to stereotypes and simplification,” said Harris. “This overlooks the vast multiplicity of real people, who lived in real time, and whose descendants continue on in modern society.”

The interpretive overlay has received its own exhibit title, “Native American Dioramas in Transition.” Written messages — affixed to the diorama glass —address concerns, suggest new ways of learning about native cultures and provide an opportunity for comment.

The displays were created in the 1950s and 1960s by Robert Butsch, former museum director and curator of exhibitions. He consulted leading anthropologists and archeologists.

“These are representations of Native Americans from the past, put behind glass, miniaturized,” said John Low, Pokagon Band of Potawanomi Indian, and U-M doctoral student in American studies. “This ossifies our culture. When Native and non-Native people look at these dioramas they expect Native Americans like this now. We’ve been marginalized, and left out how we’re represented as a people.”

While the exhibit may be among the most popular for students in elementary and middle school, the uncritical presentation of possible negative interpretations can’t be overlooked, said Frank Ettawageshik, chair, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

“When put in the full context of the museum, the diorama trains young students where to put Native Americans in their thinking – in the past, somewhere between dinosaurs and minerals,” he said. “Then, when those students are in leadership positions in government and business, they think of us the same way. And, that’s the fundamental problem.”

In the digital age, museum exhibits are changing in style to appeal to audiences’ expectations. More exhibits incorporate video, and interactivity.

“Science and research are constantly changing,” said Harris. “As we continue to learn, we update exhibits and change with the times.”

A planned overhaul of all exhibits in the museum’s 4th floor hallway – where the dioramas currently are displayed – will focus on earth science, minerals, and astronomy and cosmology. The dioramas will be moved on January 4, 2010.

Kevin Brown of the University Record contributed to this article.

NATIVE AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: The program places American Indians at the center of broader inquiries into the nature of the human confrontation with intrusive power. Faculty and students work together to explore, through the humanities and the social sciences, varieties of the Native American experience and the importance of Indians to American history, literature, religion, social sciences, politics, and law.