September 11, 2009

Indians in natural history museums

Museum to remove controversial Native American dioramas

By Rob CapricciosoSomething has long seemed amiss in the spacious halls of the University of Michigan’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History.

Nestled among exhibits of ancient dinosaur bones, prehistoric fossils and avian taxidermy, miniature 3-D scenes depicting Native Americans have been on display for decades.

Indian faculty members, students and others who visit have often felt the dioramas were out of place in the museum. Soon, to many Natives’ delight, they will be taken out.

“We are living, breathing, contemporary human beings,” said Margaret Noori, a professor of Ojibwe language and literature at the University of Michigan. “Many of us felt it was wrong that we had been represented so long as little dolls in the context of a natural history museum.”
The problem with putting Indians in this kind of museum:“Through the placement of the dioramas in the natural history museum setting, a de facto relationship seemed to be posed between animals, inanimate objects, and indigenous people.”

Her initial critical impression has only grown stronger as she’s heard stories about the negative experiences of Native American children who view the dioramas in the company of non-Native children, such as on elementary school field trips.

“Small children who have no other means of learning about Native histories and cultural ways sometimes highlight details (such as a lack of full dress of the figures) that are anachronistic in our modern times, and tease Native children about them,” Miles said.

“This kind of exchange is detrimental to Native students’ identities and all students’ learning.”
Comment:  I've seen this problem several times at museums. For instance, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

I wonder how many natural history museums still have indigenous people on display. It would be interesting to do a survey and find out.

For more on the subject, see NYC Museums Showcase Indians.

Below:  "A portion of the Native American dioramas at the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History. On Jan. 4, 2010, the dioramas are scheduled to go into storage. University professors and classes will be allowed to view them on request, but no longer will members of the public." (Dan Erickson)

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