Natural History Museum removes dioramas amidst controversy

Jed Moch/Daily
LSA sophomore Sarah Rabinowe visits the Native American dioramas. Buy this photo

BY JASMINE ZHU
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 14, 2009

The University Museum of Natural History’s controversial Native American Diorama exhibit will be taken off display starting in 2010, pleasing those who have, for years, argued that the displays are inaccurate and overly simplistic.

The exhibit places three-dimensional depictions of Native American life alongside fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures as well as stuffed birds illustrating Michigan’s vast wildlife.

“Both Native and non-Native visitors have spoken out eloquently” against the exhibit, according to a press release announcing the closure.

In the press release, Museum of Natural History officials wrote that “Museums around the world are wrestling with questions about the representation of indigenous people in museum exhibits. Who decides how a culture is portrayed? Does context matter? What happens when members of the community speak out against museum exhibits?”

To answer some of these questions, the museum is creating an overlay exhibit titled “Native American Dioramas in Transition,” which, the press release says, will explain why the diaromas are being taken down and moved into storage.

“Scholarship and museum practices have changed since the dioramas were made almost 50 years ago,” the press release reads. “Issues of concern include their context in a natural history museum and the stereotyping and oversimplification inherent in the diorama as a display technique.”

The call to take down the exhibit ultimately fell on the shoulders of the museum's director Amy Harris with the support of LSA Dean Terry McDonald and the faculty in the Native American Studies Program as well as advice from the Native American Advisory Committee. But the move will not take place until the end of LSA’s current theme year, called “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy.”

“I decided to wait to remove the dioramas until the 2009-10 LSA Museums Theme Year, so that there would be many opportunities for our audiences to learn about the issues of concern,” Harris wrote in an e-mail interview with the Daily.

Harris added that University officials are not the only ones dealing with this issue.

“This change is part of a global trend: Museums around the world are wrestling with questions about how to represent indigenous people in museum exhibits,” Harris wrote in the e-mail. “The current best practice is to collaborate with communities and give them a voice in determining how their culture is portrayed.”

Meg Noori, who teaches Ojibwe language classes at the University, said taking down the dioramas was the right decision.

"What (Harris) has done is a great way to work with educators in the community," she said.

Noori added that while she believes the exhibit wasn’t intended to stereotype, the dioramas were created nearly 50 years ago and are a product of the era’s attitude toward Native Americans, which many may view as racist.

“I don't think what (the museum) did originally was disrespectful, but to change and update exhibits makes sense," Noori said.

LSA senior Joshua Voss, co-chair of the Native American Student Association, said despite the dioramas’ age, their representation of Native Americans is inappropriate.

"I support (the dioramas’) removal as not just a Native American matter, but a human rights matter," Voss said. "Depicting indigenous people as a backwards race has greatly hurt various groups throughout the course of this nation's history."

The closing of the almost 50-year-old exhibit is one of several contentious issues between the University and the Native American community. In April, the Native American Student Association decided to move its powwow from Crisler Arena to Saline Middle School in March, citing University over-management of the annual event. The move also follows more than a year of controversy surrounding the University’s possession of what is estimated to be more than 1,900 remains and artifacts in the Museum of Anthropology. Several Native American tribes have claimed ownership of the artifacts and asked that they be returned.

University officials claim they can’t return the artifacts because they are not “culturally identifiable.” Still, at a University Board of Regents meeting last March, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe asked officials to return artifacts that they believe belong to them.