A series of seven pop-up art installations appeared around the University of Michigan’s Central, North and Medical Campuses between April 3 and April 8. The Stumbling Blocks exhibit, created by the Future University Community, was designed to reflect on and draw attention to problematic moments in the University’s history. The exhibit was included as part of the University’s bicentennial celebration to encourage the University community to reorient and reflect on its values and goals. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board commends the pop-up exhibit as a means for confronting the dubious history of the University and believes these reflections should become more regular, or even permanent, parts of our campus.
The interactivity of the Stumbling Blocks pieces created a unique foundation for dialogues across campus. The presence of self-reflective artwork on campus is crucial to the understanding of our past. By sponsoring self-critical work, the University took crucial steps to acknowledge historical issues that have impacted our campus and that some current University community members may have not otherwise known about. For example, the enlarged Native American Land Gift plaque drew attention to the fact that three Native American tribes gifted the University the land that it sits on, in the hopes that their children would be able to attend. Yet, for many years, very few, if any, Native American students were enrolled in the University. Many at the University may not have been aware of this essential context prior to observing the piece.
Furthermore, the exhibit was incredibly affective in nature, forcing observers to immediately feel connected to campus issues instead of listening to a set of facts in structured academic settings like lectures. One of the most visible portions of the exhibit was the 950 chairs in the Diag, representing the number of minority students that could not attend the University as a result of the state’s ban on gender- and race-based affirmative action. We believe this resonated with community members more tangibly than simply sharing information on Proposal 2, a Michigan ballot initiative passed in 2006 that banned the use of gender- and race-based affirmative action in admissions and was later ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2014. This tangible emotional connection makes the impacts of an abstract historical event more salient and powerful.
Nonetheless, we felt that by making the exhibit temporary, the University was not doing all it could to acknowledge its complex history and foster an important long-term conversation on the issues. The exhibits were only visible to people who happened to be on campus during a particular week, which may hamper their ability to create long-lasting conversations on these important University issues.
The University community can learn from these exhibits going forward, by teaching us to reorient the way we display, think about and engage with campus issues. Pop-up installations, or other affective pieces, should become a more regular occurrence, so as to hold the University more accountable and better inform the campus population about our past pitfalls.
Furthermore, instead of simply disseminating the facts about these historical events through plaques, for example, there should be events or pieces created to catch our eyes and create unique interaction with historical issues. Students should also become more involved in the process of putting on these events and creating future pieces, as collaboration between University community members and the University itself is crucial to take strides to recognize our history.
The University of Michigan community should be using its bicentennial to think about how we will move forward. Critically thinking about our past shortcomings is vital to informing our actions in the coming years. Using interactive exhibits, such as they did with the Stumbling Blocks art exhibit, creates a unique and engaging dialogue about this history throughout the campus community, and we implore the University to make these events and exhibits a staple of our community in the years to come.