Museum to remove controversial Native American dioramas

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Something has long seemed amiss in the spacious halls of the University of Michigan’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History.

Nestled among exhibits of ancient dinosaur bones, prehistoric fossils and avian taxidermy, miniature 3-D scenes depicting Native Americans have been on display for decades.

Indian faculty members, students and others who visit have often felt the dioramas were out of place in the museum. Soon, to many Natives’ delight, they will be taken out.

“We are living, breathing, contemporary human beings,” said Margaret Noori, a professor of Ojibwe language and literature at the University of Michigan. “Many of us felt it was wrong that we had been represented so long as little dolls in the context of a natural history museum.”

Robert Butsch, who directed the museum years ago, started building the miniature models in the 1950s, completing them in 1969. Not long after, they went on display for the public.

They showed eight indigenous cultures of North America, of which six were from the Michigan area. Four of the Michigan tribes were represented as they would have looked at colonial contact, and two depicted more ancient times.

Museum officials said the dioramas have been popular throughout the years, especially with elementary school children and teachers who regularly visit the site for a field trip learning experience.

But not for people like Christy Bieber, a neuroscience major at the university and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“I never really felt good about it,” she reflected, saying she’d sometimes come stare at the dioramas, wishing they would be removed.

She chose the University of Michigan specifically so she could study and learn the Ojibwe language – a situation that made the presence of the dioramas all the more disturbing to her.

“It’s just an odd idea to see what are supposed to be my people in a tiny box.”

Once, she went and danced and drummed at the museum to help illustrate her traditional Anishinaabe culture.

“The elementary kids kind of looked at me in awe,” Bieber said. “It was fun.”

Noori also took action. She said the dioramas made her want to sit in front of them and talk Ojibwe to passersby all day long.

Sometimes she did.

Tiya Miles, director of the Native American Studies Program at the university, first encountered the dioramas in 2006, a few years after she moved to Ann Arbor.

She had an immediate problem with them.

“Through the placement of the dioramas in the natural history museum setting, a de facto relationship seemed to be posed between animals, inanimate objects, and indigenous people.”

Her initial critical impression has only grown stronger as she’s heard stories about the negative experiences of Native American children who view the dioramas in the company of non-Native children, such as on elementary school field trips.

“Small children who have no other means of learning about Native histories and cultural ways sometimes highlight details (such as a lack of full dress of the figures) that are anachronistic in our modern times, and tease Native children about them,” Miles said.

“This kind of exchange is detrimental to Native students’ identities and all students’ learning.”

When Amy Harris became director of the museum in 2000, she quickly received word from many Native Americans that the displays were hurtful and wrong in terms of context, body and message.

After attending an educational session sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution on ways museums could work to evolve and work with living subjects, Harris said she was ready for change. She soon formed a Native advisory committee that made recommendations to improve the situation.

As a result, some labels and timelines were added to clarify the models, and contemporary explanations were included. New displays, such as one focused on powwows, were also created.

The efforts were not enough. Many Natives said the only way to fix the problem would be to remove the dioramas altogether – Indians, after all, were still being represented as tiny miniatures in boxes, sort of like hamsters, some said. And they were being portrayed in the context of dinosaur bones, rocks and dead, stuffed birds.

Harris agreed. Ultimately, she decided the dioramas should be removed, and that Native American representations did not belong in the museum.

On Jan. 4, 2010, the dioramas are scheduled to go into storage. University professors and classes will be allowed to view them on request, but no longer will members of the public.

Before then, the museum plans to use the dioramas one last time, as an ultimate “teachable moment.”

To help mark the university’s theme semester this fall, called “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy,” the museum unveiled a new exhibit Sept. 12, entitled “Native American Dioramas in Transition.”

The display features an overlay on the dioramas, explaining why they are problematic, and why they will be removed. It also directs people to further resources.

Harris noted that museums around the world are wrestling with questions about how to represent indigenous people in museum exhibits. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. is viewed by many as a leader in this field – and a source of inspiration.

Noori, for one, is happy about the shift to removal, along with the temporary transition exhibit.

“It’s very, very wise. Shifts in history too often occur without information. This gives everyone a pause to process.”

For those who might miss the dioramas, Harris said, “This is a changing landscape, a changing field. This is an opportunity for many people to learn something new.

“Change can be hard, but it’s part of life, and it’s certainly part of museums.”