Miniature scenes of Native American life are among the most popular displays at the U-M Exhibit Museum. But now they’re being removed–because Native Americans say they’re outdated and hurtful.

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.

The faces of the doll-like figures often express an emotion; there’s a story unfolding, and your imagination supplies what will happen next. It’s common to see young children settle in and spend time with an individual diorama, taking in each tiny detail: the hundreds of miniature corn husks, the perfectly scaled dogs and a pony.

In museum parlance, the duration of viewer engagement with an exhibit is called “dwell time.” Like “hang time” with a football punt, it’s desirable. Fifty years after they were made, these exhibits elicit plenty of “dwell time,” particularly with children.

It’s easy to see why the tiny people with their tiny dwellings and tools have fascinated generations of schoolchildren. Combined with skillfully painted backgrounds, the dioramas give an illusion of being in another time and place.

In recent years, however, many Native Americans have been telling museum officials that other, more damaging illusions are created in the minds of diorama viewers. On September 12, the dioramas are scheduled to begin a transition that will culminate with their removal in January.

According to Amy Harris, director of the Exhibit Museum, the decision to remove the dioramas “evolved over a long period of time–about ten years–with many conversations, including conversations with Native faculty.” Ultimately, the decision to remove the dioramas was Harris’s, with approval from LS&A dean Terry McDonald.

On September 12, an overlay exhibit will be installed. Harris’s idea is to create a temporary exhibit telling why a permanent exhibit–the dioramas–is being removed. Panels around and on the dioramas will explain their problematic issues and the process leading to the decision. In addition to the panels, a feedback station will allow visitors to leave comments. Museum staff will select comments and post them on a display nearby. In January, the dioramas will be moved to a storage building near Crisler Arena. They will be accessible to faculty, students, and researchers, but not the general public.

Veronica Pasfield, an Ojibwa member of the Bay Mills tribal community, is one of those Native voices that called for the removal of the dioramas. Though she is now a doctoral student in Native Studies, and cochair of the Native Caucus–an organization of indigenous graduate students–Pasfield first encountered the dioramas as a chaperone on her son’s field trip from Northside Elementary in 2001.

“We had just moved here from Petoskey,” Pasfield recalls. “They were studying specifically the Potawatomi at Northside because this is Potawatomi territory. I volunteered to come in each week and supplement their curriculum with cultural information from my tribe. So I came in every week and brought in wild rice, drums, medicine wheels–I did little workshops for the kids.

“My son understood himself as an Indian person, as Anishinaabe [Ojibwa], and the Potawatomi as his cousins. He knows that his family is Native. He was learning the language. He knows that he’s a tribal member. He has lived on the reservation. So this is a kid with a really robust cultural identity.”

While Pasfield’s initial reaction to the dioramas was a mixture of fascination and horror, it was her son’s response that galvanized her. He brought home a booklet he made in school after the museum visit. His cover drawing for the booklet showed three bodies, buried far below ground, with tombstones reading “RIP” above them. Pasfield was stunned. “These museum exhibits really have the power to make my ardently enculturated child portray his own people as dead.”

By chance, Harris called Pasfield around this time to request her participation in a group creating signs next to the dioramas. Pasfield was eager to help. “At no point did we think, ‘These labels are going to erase what is problematic about these dioramas.’ But I thought, ‘It’s a start.'”

Over time, Harris and Pasfield developed mutual respect and reached a mutual conclusion: the medium is the message. “The diorama as a display technique, by definition, freezes the past,” says Harris. “We were finding that kids were coming to the museum, looking at the dinosaurs, the fossils, the stuffed animals, the endangered species, then arriving at the dioramas–and forming an impression that Native Americans were extinct.”

Pasfield puts it this way: “My number-one problem with dioramas is they are thought to be neutral and scientific, but they are not. They’re not anything near that. While they are these beautiful little wax Happy Meals toys, they are also expressing the dominant culture that created them. They are expressing total control. They are expressing a godlike view of indigenous people who have been reduced, contained, and are under our complete control. It also happened in real time with real Indian people. Indian people were killed–‘reduced.’ They were contained on reservations. And they were controlled; their assets, how they educate their children, everything was controlled by the federal government. And this is the thing that scares me the most: the kids ‘get it.’ They can’t describe it, but they get it. Every Indian kid in Ann Arbor I know has been upset by these dioramas.”

The dioramas were constructed over several years, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. They were the work of Robert Butsch, then the museum’s curator of exhibits. Butsch eventually went on to serve as the museum’s director from 1974 until his retirement in 1986. He died in December 2005 at the age of ninety-one.

In an interview with Pasfield before his death, Butsch recalled that when he arrived at the museum, scholarship on Native Americans was almost nonexistent. The museum’s few artifacts were in storage, taken out only for examination by students. So he was enthusiastic when the museum’s then director asked him to take on the diorama project. “My idea was, ‘Why not make this a little more alive?'” he told Pasfield. “These were living people, and these are the artifacts they used, and this is how they might have looked. We wanted to bring the artifacts to life.”

His daughter, Elizabeth Butsch Cardinal, remembers going to the museum and watching her father work. “I was fascinated with his ability to make these teeny things. He would talk about the way he was trying to figure out how to make things to scale, even the hair for the figures. He used silk parachute cord that’s unraveled, straightened out, and dyed.”

Butsch was painstaking in creating the objects in the dioramas. He consulted with colleagues in anthropology and archaeology. But, according to Pasfield, who interviewed Butsch two years before he died, he did not seek input from any living Native people.

“But now,” says Harris, “museum techniques and practices are changing. It’s something many museums around the world are grappling with: how should a museum in any given country that has indigenous people portray those cultures? It is a question of power. Who tells the story? How is it told? Where is it told? What kind of portrayals emerge? It used to be there was a curatorial ‘expert’ perspective. Now, practices have changed. The displays developed are collaborative. Those cultures have a say in how they are being represented.” Harris cited the Anishinaabek: The People of This Place exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum as an example.

While the possibility of removing the dioramas has been under consideration for many years, Harris chose this fall to begin easing them out to coordinate their removal with LS&A’s theme for the coming academic year: “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy.” Harris says, “We felt this was the perfect moment to talk about a local issue in a global context. There will be many opportunities for the public to come and learn more about this action we’re taking.”

The first of those opportunities occurs September 30, when Rick West, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, will speak at the U-M Museum of Art on “Reflections on American History and 21st-Century Museology.” On November 14, Amy Harris will moderate a panel discussion at the Ann Arbor District Library titled “Representing Native Americans.”

Cardinal, Butsch’s daughter, is philosophical about the dioramas’ removal. “If they’ve been in there for fifty years, it is perhaps time for a change. I hate to see them go, but museums are not static.”

Pasfield stresses that Native Americans aren’t the only people who pushed for the change. “[T]o frame this as Indians protesting until the dioramas were removed would be factually incorrect!” she emails.

Ray Silverman, who heads the U-M’s museum studies program, agrees. “Other people were part of the discussion,” says Silverman, who supports Harris’s decision. But, he adds, “the main pressure is definitely coming from Native American students. If it weren’t for them, it wouldn’t be happening.

“My take is there’s nothing intrinsically wrong [with dioramas of Indian life], the problem is the context in which it is represented,” Silverman says. “When that is the sum total of how Native Americans are represented in the Exhibit Museum–in the entire university–that is the problem.” The implication that the dioramas depict dead or inferior cultures would be lessened, for example, if they were displayed alongside scenes of historical Europeans or of contemporary Native Americans. “Any number of Native American tribal museums have dioramas,” he points out, “and they’re perfectly OK in that context.”

But Silverman also believes museums have a responsibility “not to provide a hurtful experience for people”–and working with Pasfield as a student sensitized him to how painful the miniatures can be to descendants of the people they portray. “It’s important to know that people who are not Native American respond to them in a very different way” than Native Americans, he says.

“It will be very interesting to see what the community’s response will be,” says Silverman. “After the dinosaurs, those are probably the most popular exhibit in the museum.” But he’s comfortable with the decision and with the open way in which Harris is explaining it and inviting other perspectives. “This is the museum at its best,” he says. “It’s a space to confront really tough issues.”