Stumbling Blocks pop-up exhibits draw attention to University's past

The University sets up 950 empty maize and blue chairs as part of the President's Bicentennial Colloquium movement Stumbling Blocks on the Diag on Monday.

The University sets up 950 empty maize and blue chairs as part of the President's Bicentennial Colloquium movement Stumbling Blocks on the Diag on Monday.
Joshua Han/Daily
Monday, April 3, 2017 - 10:15pm

The sea of over 950 maize and blue chairs in the Diag and the ticker-tape sign above the Michigan Union’s doors are just two of the seven installations of Stumbling Blocks that will have students walking through history on campus for the next week. These pop-up art exhibits are scattered throughout Central, Medical and North Campuses and were created by the Future University Community to commemorate some challenging aspects of the University of Michigan’s history as part of the bicentennial celebration.

The exhibits are designed to attract attention to sensitive issues surrounding the University’s history that could otherwise be overlooked during the bicentennial celebration. These include: the Native American land gift of 1817 that served as a source of income for the University’s endowment, equity for women on campus, Proposal 2 — the state’s ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action —  and surrounding controversies, student protest, the growth of ethics in biomedical research in a global context and the future of nuclear research.

Presidential Bicentennial Prof. Martha Jones, one of the coordinators of Stumbling Blocks exhibits, discussed the importance of commemorating these events.

“This project tries to bring the questions that the bicentennial raises out into the public light of the campus, beyond auditoriums and seminars and lecture halls to places like the Diag and the Michigan Union,” Jones said. “It also recalls difficult, challenging and complicated moments of our past so we can think better about the future.”

According to Jones, Stumbling Blocks was greatly influenced by a project by German artist Gunter Demnig called “Stolpersteine,” or Stumbling Stones. His project originated in Berlin and has now spread throughout Europe. Demnig has removed cobblestones from sidewalks and streets and replaced them with brass plaques to memorialize the people who perished in the Holocaust.

“History is always there,” Jones said. “But it is often invisible or muted. By creating these installations, the invisible history can become more visible, and become a part of our contemporary memory.”

Five of the seven Stumbling Blocks were created by staff who have their own markers. The Fleming Administration building has been renamed, for the week, the “33,616 Staff Building,” in honor of the 33,616 staffers who work for the University. 

Nearby, the sign in front of the Michigan Union ticks endlessly to demonstrate the restrictions on women’s use of the building from its construction in 1919 to 1968. The Union, according to the sign, was built as an exclusive men’s club, and women were required to enter through a side door and have a male escort accompanying them during specific hours and days. Equal access to the entirety of the building did not come until 1968, when the Billiards Room allowed women entry.

A sign outside the exhibit displayed words from Michigan Union Director Amy White that progress can still made.

“We want all students to feel at home here,” the sign read. “To feel like this is their space. Our challenge — and that of the future university community — is to continue to evolve to meet the needs of students of all genders and identities.”

Many students and faculty had strong reactions to the 950 empty maize and blue chairs in the Diag, which symbolize the number of underrepresented minority students who did not attend the University after Proposal 2 deemed race- and gender-based affirmative action unconstitutional in the state of Michigan. LSA senior Brian Sutherland discussed how he feels the chairs carried a sense of urgency.

“It captures the eye so quickly,” Sutherland said. “People think that an event is going to start, but once they see and read the signs they realize that this is actually has a deeper meaning to it … I definitely did not know about Proposal 2 before this.”

About 100 meters away, a plaque in Ingalls Mall that commemorates the Native American land gift to the University has been blown up to an 8-ft by 8-ft model with three sides and artificial lighting. According to Jones, this is so people will deliberately encounter the plaque and is meant to encourage them to have conversations about it.

“I was very inspired by a conversation with a colleague,” Jones said. “When I mentioned to them that we had a marker on Ingalls Mall, they exclaimed that they literally stumbled on it on their way to my office. So I thought that this idea that someone would accidentally or inadvertently encounter history seems like something we could work with.”

Encountering the monument, Music, Theatre & Dance junior Noah Kieserman commented how he felt enlarging these aspects of history has had a strong impact on conversations of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s important to make sure we remember the foundations of our University,” Kieserman said. “As well as continuing to support diversity and provide support for all groups and all walks of life at the University, I think it’s important to make everyone feel included. This is crucial especially during the bicentennial.”

Jones encourages students to Tweet using the hashtag #UMich200 to engage in the dialogue about the bicentennial and the University's history.