‘Stumbling Blocks’ bicentennial exhibition to tackle U-M’s history, look to future


An upcoming pop-up art exhibition on campus will explore challenges throughout the University of Michigan’s history and serve as a resource to guide U-M through its third century.

Titled “Stumbling Blocks,” the exhibition will consist of seven large, provocative art installations that will tackle important challenges and ethical questions that U-M has faced during the last two centuries, from the effects of Proposal 2 on the enrollment of students of color to the ethics of biomedical research.

The exhibition is associated with the President’s Bicentennial Colloquium on the Future University Community.

The exhibition will be spread out across the Ann Arbor campus, and run April 3-8. Each exhibit will include an interpretative sign with additional information.

This graphic shows the locations of the pop-up art installations for the Stumbling Blocks exhibition. Click the image for a larger version with more details. (Graphic by Steve Culver, The University Record)

The installations and their locations are:

Remembering Students Missing After Proposal 2 (The Diag and Ingalls Mall) reflects on the future of student diversity. Nine hundred fifty empty maize-and-blue chairs on the Diag and Ingalls Mall draw attention to the numbers of African-American, Latino and Native American students who were not admitted to the university as a result of Proposal 2, which banned public universities in Michigan from using affirmative action in admissions.

Equity for Women and Gender on Campus (Michigan Union) draws attention to how gender inequity can undermine the quality of campus life. A ticker tape sign will display excerpts from early regulations of the building’s use by women. For example, when the Michigan Union opened in 1919, women were only permitted to enter the building through the north entrance and if accompanied by a man.

New Approaches to the Ethics of Biomedical Research (Kresge Park) posits international research as developed through scientific and ethical partnership. Two flags will be installed at the same height — one signifying U-M, the other symbolizing the country of Brazil — to illustrate the long-standing ties Michigan has to research fields across the world. In the 1960s, U-M researchers who worked in Brazil were linked to a devastating measles outbreak among the Yanomami people. The most serious of these accusations have been debunked; the experience remains a touchstone for thinking about the ethical obligations of biomedical research.

Remaking Nuclear Research (Energy Institute) opens up reflections about how the future of nuclear research is linked to the well-being of a global community. The Energy Institute will be wrapped in depictions of the atom and the planet Earth to pose questions about the future challenges around the use of nuclear technology. The institute builds on the legacy of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, which was created in 1948 to conduct research that supports the peaceful use of atomic energy. The project also served as a memorial for U-M community members who gave their lives during World War II.

Student Protest (Angell Hall) points out how students will shape the future university. Historical images of student protests at U-M will be projected at this location to invite reflection on how these forces have shaped the university, from the 1930s until today.

Native Americans: Michigan’s Foundation (Ingalls Mall) suggests how U-M’s ties to Native American communities are at the core of the university’s mission. A large-scale reproduction of the existing plaque on Ingalls Mall recalls how three Native American tribes granted land for U-M through the 1817 Treaty of Fort Meigs. That land was later sold and the funds provided a significant portion of U-M’s endowment when it moved to Ann Arbor in 1837.

Quantifying the Role of Staff (Fleming Building) encourages new appreciation for the roles that staff will play in the third century. The Fleming Administration Building will be renamed as the “The 33,616 Staff Building” during the duration of the exhibition, highlighting the talent, support and contributions of staff over the last two centuries.

Presidential Bicentennial Professor Martha S. Jones, who spearheaded the Stumbling Blocks exhibition, said the project developed as a way for the university to use difficult moments in its history to promote better thinking about the third century, as well as to bring the bicentennial out of the classroom and into the spaces of community members’ everyday lives.

She added the project also serves as U-M’s contribution to a national debate occurring on college campuses centering on how the histories of universities are forgotten, remembered, memorialized and erased.

Jones said she was interested in using the installations to make “bigger than life some of the muted or silent dimensions of history.” Jones explained, “Stumbling Blocks is not an exhaustive look at our difficult past, but it does suggest how we can use challenging chapters from our history to better face challenges on our horizon.”

“I want people to learn about difficult moments in our history that they may not already be aware of, and I’d like people to take what they learn about the past to ask good questions about the future,” said Jones, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of history and of Afroamerican and African studies, LSA; and adjunct professor of law, Law School.

Bicentennial Office Executive Director Gary Krenz said part of the mission of the bicentennial is to engage in reflection and scholarly analysis to better understand the university’s past, partly as a way of thinking about how to enter its third century.

“It’s about celebration but it’s also about deliberation and reflection,” Krenz, adjunct lecturer in philosophy, LSA, said. “I think that having these large installations, which are going to be very arresting, is a great way to generate some reflection and discussion.”



  1. Dave Learned
    on April 4, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Response to “Stumbling Blocks”

    I was pleased to read of the planning for the ‘Stumbling Blocks’ bicentennial outdoor exhibition in the University Record written up during the week of March 27, 2017. I propose that in this exhibition the University include for memorialization one of those challenging chapters from our history the sad, and frightening removal of three of our professors from the teaching staff in 1954, during the McCarthy era. They were dismissed for refusing to sign a statement professing loyalty to the United States. The signature was made a condition of their continued employment at the University. As an undergraduate at the time, I was among a great number of students who became very anxious about the possible implications for their future employment of a refusal to sign. I’m sure this anxiety was shared by many of the faculty.

    When I applied for a passport to attend the Free University of Berlin in 1955, I was obliged to declare that I hadn’t joined or even visited any of a list of communist front organizations in the United States. Because of what had happened to professors Markert, Davis and Nickerson I was afraid that any misstep in this application or for that matter in the coming year in Berlin, might result in my not being able to return to medical school at the U of M. I came close to turning down the exchange scholarship because the atmosphere of paranoia on campus at the time had been very intimidating to me.

    I liked your choice of ‘Stumbling Blocks’ for the name of the exhibition. In Berlin today, there are by now a few thousand small brass plaques called by that name (‘Stolpersteine’) imbedded in the sidewalks in front of houses and apartments memorializing where Jewish families had lived, and from where they were taken away to be murdered. I don’t know if anyone died in the McCarthy era as a result of the witch hunts, but I do know that anxiety was high in both the University and in the United States for several years because of them.

    Please consider including among your presentations a memorialization if this sad era in the story of the University.

    Dave Learned, M.D., Professor Emeritus, School of Medicine

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