September 13, 2009

"Native American Dioramas in Transition"

An exhibit that responds to the criticism of Indians in Natural History Museums. From the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History's website:

Native American Dioramas in TransitionMuseums worldwide are wrestling with questions about the representation of indigenous people in museum exhibits. Who gets to decide how a people's culture is portrayed? Does context matter? What happens when members of a community speak out against museum exhibits?

The U-M Exhibit Museum of Natural History has a set of fourteen dioramas depicting Native American cultures. The dioramas are now almost fifty years old and are longtime favorites of many museum visitors. Both Native and non-Native visitors have spoken out eloquently against them. After years of trying to reconcile these differences through changes to the exhibits and new educational programs, the Museum has decided to remove them from display in January 2010. An interpretive exhibit overlay explains the reasons for the coming change, discusses how other museums have addressed similar issues, and provides an opportunity for comment. Numerous educational events throughout the fall will provide an opportunity to explore these issues in greater depth.
Below are some shots of the exhibit. You can't read most of the text, but the photos suggest the problems with the dioramas.

Cheryl Cash's Photos--Native American Dioramas in Transition Exhibit Overlay

Comment:  I like dioramas like these. They help make Native cultures real and concrete. To me they're much more interesting than seeing lifeless clothes and artifacts on a wall.

But a few caveats with such displays:

1) They should be historically and culturally accurate, with Native experts overseeing their development and presentation.

2) They should appear in Native-themed museums, not natural history museums.

3) Other displays should show the progression of Native people through the centuries to the present. No one should see the dioramas in isolation and conclude Indians are a people of the past.

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