Children pressed their faces against translucent mesh covering the glass protecting dioramas of Native American life before European colonization in the Museum of Natural History yesterday afternoon.

The children had come to the museum to look at its exhibits, but found themselves at an art show meant to critique the museum’s displays.

The installation surrounding the Native American dioramas was one of many created by groups of students from a School of Art and Design class.

It was meant to draw attention to the insensitivity of the dioramas, said Art and Design senior Kevin Stahl, who helped create the display. Some people believe the dioramas objectify Native Americans because other cultures aren’t represented in the museum.

The only other dioramas in the museum are of animals.

“It constructs the idea that certain people belong in the museum and certain people don’t,” said Veronica Pasfield, a Rackham student of Native American descent. “Why are human beings in a museum of natural history? Why are they in there with the rocks and dead animals?”

Pasfield inspired Stahl to do the project after he had her as his graduate student instructor in an English class last year. She is researching the way Native Americans have been depicted in museums.

The group stretched translucent mesh across the dioramas to make it hard for visitors to see them.

“It could be compared to the way a television program censors foul language or human body parts,” the group’s flier explaining the project said. “We believe that when things are censored it actually brings more attention to them.”

The group also placed large drawings of the Native American figurines on the floor.

“Museum visitors are faced with a decision to either step on the Native Americans in order to cross to the other side or walk around them,” the explanation read.

Although museum visitors were not provided with the written explanation, group members explained the meaning of the art if visitors asked.

Stahl’s group passed out fliers that explained the controversy and listed the business phone numbers of Amy Harris, the museum’s director, Terrance McDonald, the dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts as well as University President Mary Sue Coleman.

The flier criticized the lack of research that went into the dioramas’ creation.

University zoologist Robert Butsch designed the dioramas in 1952 without talking to any Native Americans, said Pasfield, who interviewed Butsch for her research before he died. His sources included National Geographic magazine, Pasfield said.

She said he described his work to her as “showing little animals in their environment.”

The flier said there have been calls for the dioramas’ removal for more than 30 years.

Pasfield said she knows several Native Americans who have complained about the dioramas to museum staff.

Harris, who has worked at the museum for 11 years, said no one had ever voiced complaints about the dioramas until the museum sought out Native Americans to review the museum’s displays in order to treat the subject with contemporary sensitivity, Harris said.

After the review ended in 2004, the museum installed updated labels that contained geographical information and chronology, as well as pictures of Native Americans today and paragraphs about the tribes’ current statuses. The museum also added wall panels that explained the University’s historical relationship to Native American communities.

Pasfield, who was a member of the review panel, said she is happy that the museum staff has tried to make the cultural displays less offensive but thinks the dioramas should be removed.

Harris said exhibits will most likely be replaced. She said she didn’t know when that would happen.

“We don’t have a specific timeline,” she said. “We have a small staff, a small budget and we can only move forward at a slow pace.”

Because the dioramas are so popular, though, the museum would first need to find a replacement that would be as engaging, she said.

Most of the visitors to the museum during the art show were families with children. Some of the children stopped to peer into the miniature scenes.

The diorama featuring Native Americans is a favorite of Ann Arbor resident Sarah Clark and her 9-year-old son Willie. After seeing the students’ critique, they still like the dioramas but now think they need to be improved.

“It made us think they could put more about what happened after the Europeans came and add more about them now,” Willie Clark said.

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