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Updated 10:00 AM September 28, 2009

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Native American dioramas undergo changes

As the university prepares to remove 14 dioramas depicting Native American cultures out of the Exhibit Museum of Natural History, members of the public can learn why the 50-year-old displays have raised concerns from both native and non-native visitors.
Philip Deloria, professor of history and professor of American culture, talks about new messages placed among 14 dioramas depicting Native American culture at the Exhibit Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

New overlay messages placed on and around the dioramas supplement text long presented with the fourth floor hallway displays, which depict Native Americans in miniature, engaged in various historical activities.

"We were concerned that we were leaving the impression that Native Americans are extinct, just like the dinosaurs on the second floor," said Museum Director Amy Harris. She said museums around the world have also been facing issues about the depiction of native populations.

"Each of these Native American dioramas purports to represent an entire culture, inevitably resorting to stereotypes and simplification," Harris said. "This overlooks the vast multiplicity of real people, who lived in real time, and whose descendants continue on in modern society."

The interpretive overlay has received its own exhibit title, Native American Dioramas in Transition. Written messages — affixed to the diorama glass —address concerns, suggest new ways of learning about native cultures and provide an opportunity for comment.

The dioramas and the interpretive exhibit overlay will remain on display through Jan. 4, when they will be moved to storage.

Harris made the decision to remove the dioramas with the support of LSA Dean Terry McDonald and the faculty in the Native American Studies Program. "This decision is guided by the university's and the Exhibit Museum's dedication to advancing scholarship and best practices, collaboration, and support of our diverse community," Harris said.

Philip Deloria, professor of history and professor of American culture, LSA, was among those working on this issue. "There were a lot of stakeholders who were consulted, it was an incredibly thorough process," Deloria said. Among those surveyed were teachers, children, an anthropologist and members of the native community.

Harris said there was added incentive to make the change in this particular year, as it has been identified as the LSA theme year Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy.

The Native American dioramas were completed by Robert Butsch in 1969. Harris said that while the dioramas have been popular with many visitors, concerns had been raised over their context in a natural history museum and the stereotyping and oversimplification inherent in the diorama as a display technique.

"Each generation of scholars finds more effective ways to gather knowledge and present it accurately to others. Consequently, norms and best practices change over time in all academic areas, including museum studies and Native American studies," Harris said.

"We looked at what other museums were doing, and what the best practices currently are in the museum field. We felt that the best decision was to take them off public display. There are ongoing discussions about future displays in other, more appropriate locations on campus."

A planned overhaul of all exhibits in the museum's 4th floor hallway will focus on earth science, minerals, and astronomy and cosmology, Harris said.

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