Much has changed since museum dioramas depicting Native Americans alongside dinosaur fossils first premiered fifty years ago. Though acceptable at the time, today there is little doubt that such displays are culturally insensitive and misleading. The University’s Natural History Museum is correcting a wrong by removing a one such exhibit from its museum. Administrators also have the means to right a second wrong by aggressively investigating the rightful owners of human remains and Native American objects being held by the University and returning them to their owners.
The Natural History Museum, situated opposite the C.C. Little bus stop, announced on September 12 that it will close a 50-year-old Native American Diorama exhibit by the end of the year. The closure comes in response to prolonged concerns raised by both Native American and non-Native American visitors about the exhibit’s accuracy and appropriateness. The exhibit depicted scenes of Native American life using dioramas that were placed in a museum filled with pre-historic artifacts like fossils and dinosaur bones as though the indigenous people were part of pre-historic fauna, too.
By choosing to remove the exhibit, the museum authorities have finally acknowledged that these dioramas were insensitive. This is certainly a positive development, although the display will still remain open for the rest of the year as part of the LSA theme year to discuss the evolution of museums and their contribution to University life. The University is right to acknowledge and discuss the insensitive representation of Native Americans in museums and popular culture and to eventually put an end to a misleading portrayal of Native American culture.
But any measure of praise the University may deserve for finally deciding to close the exhibit is certainly squandered by its continued ownership of cultural artifacts that belong to Native American tribes. University administrators have been callous toward requests by several tribes for the return of certain artifacts – including human remains and other funerary, sacred and cultural objects.
The University still holds more than 1,900 artifacts on the grounds that it’s not possible to identify whom they belong to, which is a condition of returning artifacts under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Despite repeated protests and well-supported claims made by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe to 1,428 of those artifacts, the University has avoided a re-examination of the issue.
The University’s current efforts haven’t been good enough, and it should feel compelled to make a better effort to determine the origins of these artifacts so that they can be returned. Keeping the artifacts indefinitely is a disrespectful approach, especially considering that these artifacts include human remains that the tribes want to bury properly.
University administrators often claim to value cultural sensitivity and understanding showcased by closing the the diorama exhibit. But they need to act on these values and take proactive steps to repatriate Native American artifacts currently in its possession.