University of Michigan historian Martha Jones and her colleagues had a vision: As part of the university’s bicentennial celebration this year, Michigan would confront some of the institution’s most challenging issues and difficult moments.
The result is last week’s dramatic pop-up art exhibit called “Stumbling Blocks,” featuring seven installations marking less visible – and sometimes deeply troubling –U-M stories one might not expect to find during a 200-year anniversary party.
The exhibit’s frank approach does a world of good in bringing hard truths to light. As Jones wrote in a position paper, then the community can reckon with its stumbling blocks, learn from its past and aspire to be a more equitable and just community in its next century.
Powerful stuff, beautifully told.
Consider these installations as examples:
A ticker-tape sign outside the university’s beloved student union displays excerpts from a pamphlet produced at the building’s founding describing restrictions on the use of the space by women (allowed in only through a north entrance and only when escorted by a man). Women were not allowed unrestricted access through the front doors until 1956 and not complete access until 1968 when the billiards room finally ended its ban.
Though memorials are often grand affairs with building namings, statues or special events, there is only a small plaque on campus noting an original gift of land, then sold to enable the university’s move from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Three Native American tribes gave the land in 1817. This week, that small plaque is magnified in size and its importance highlighted, so all who pass by will take note.
The exhibit team placed 950 maize and blue chairs In the heart of Michigan’s campus called the Diag, Empty chairs, representing those students who could not attend the university after the passage of the state’s Proposal 2 in 2006 which banned affirmative action from the admissions process. This came after a decade-long legal defense of the university’s policies all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that race could be used as one of many factors in admissions to improve the quality of the educational experience for all students. (Julie and I led the communications effort supporting this work for many years, in fact.) The exhibit team estimated how many academically qualified students of color might have been excluded when race could no longer be considered as a factor in admissions.
At a time when university communities across the country are struggling with questions of how to address stumbling blocks in their own histories – slavery, racism and exclusion among them –the University of Michigan’s use of public art to bring difficult moments to life provides important perspective during its bicentennial milestone marker.
Professor Jones told me this: “We wanted to confront hard questions as a way to better think about the future. We have a remarkable capacity to engage with one another even when we disagree, to learn from these moments, and to model for other universities how to thoughtfully and actively take up their pasts.”
A final note: Among my favorite installations is the renaming of the Fleming Administration Building, the building I worked in for 12 years. This week the space is named for the 33,616 staff members who, though the backbone of the institution’s operations, are not often highlighted for their many contributions.