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Sunday September 20, 2020
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Disappearing Dioramas



For nearly half a century, six-inch-tall models of human beings have silently met visitors stepping off the stairs to the fourth floor of the UM's Exhibit Museum of Natural History. The models, representing Native Americans, are in fourteen dioramas--glass cases containing miniature worlds.

Each of the dioramas is about twenty-eight inches wide, twenty-four inches high, and a couple feet deep. Brightly lit from within, set in two closely packed rows, they seem somehow familiar. Finally it dawns on you: a bank of television sets at a big-box store--with a difference. Instead of the endless motion of fourteen sets tuned to the same channel, you immediately register the stillness of each scene and how each is unique. The settings span thousands of miles, from the southwestern United States to the Arctic, and many thousands of years, from the long-gone Mound Builders of the Midwest to the Inuit in the nineteenth century.

A transfixing blend of dollhouse and TV set, they draw youngsters in. A ledge ten inches off the floor affords a child-level seat to look into the bottom row of dioramas. Standing on the ledge, even a three-year-old can look into the top row.

A good number of the dioramas feature bare-breasted women, smiling--some with heads thrown back in laughter--as they tan hides, grind corn, and hold babies. The Mound Builder diorama shows a burial ceremony, a powerful little pageant of death. In others, hunters return from the hunt and a family gets ready for winter.

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