College Close to Decision on Fate of Racially Insensitive Murals

  • The Department of Political Science panel is part of Walter Beach Humphrey's "Hovey Murals," completed in the late 1930s in the faculty dining hall at Dartmouth College. ("The Hovey Murals at Dartmouth College: Culture and Contexts")

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2018 12:20:45 AM
Modified: 9/9/2018 12:21:30 AM

Hanover — The four paintings were put under lock and key years ago, the oil-covered canvases hidden away in a dark, underground room that holds little more than wood paneling and the ghosts of meals long since eaten.

Some want the murals to be left where they are, in the basement of a closed room in the Class of 1953 Commons, previously known as Thayer Hall. Some want them removed or destroyed because, they say, they’re made uncomfortable by the very idea of walking into the common area that lies directly above.

The fate of the Hovey murals — painted on the walls of a rathskeller that served as a faculty grill in the days before women were allowed to attend classes — will be announced by Dartmouth College administrators within a few weeks.

At an Ivy League campus that is world renowned for the scholarly gifts of its faculty and students, the Hovey murals have been the subject of an extensive, decades-long intellectual discourse that has documented a vast and sprawling context of artistic, political and cultural history.

But when the paintings are considered by the broader public, most of that context falls away, replaced by a debate over whether free speech rights should be extended to protect deeply offensive images — the paintings, inspired by a Dartmouth drinking song written by Richard Hovey in the late 1800s, depict Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock bringing a cask of rum and educational books to a Native American chief and several naked, sexualized Native American women (one of whom is depicted as trying to read a book she is holding upside down).

A student group, Native Americans at Dartmouth, sent a letter to college administrators earlier this year asking that the murals be either stored elsewhere, removed from campus altogether, or destroyed, according to Bruce Duthu, the Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth.

Duthu and Juliette Bianco deputy director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, are the co-chairpersons of a study group that Interim Provost David Kotz formed in response to the student concerns.

“Our mandate from the provost office asked us simply to consider the pros and cons of leaving the murals in their present location or removing them to another location,” Duthu said. “It did not contemplate ... the destruction of the murals.”

Duthu said that the committee’s report, which was given to Kotz recently, listed pros and cons of those scenarios and “recommended a course of action” to the administration. One of the charges when the study committee was announced in April was whether they should be moved to a Hood Museum of Art storage facility.

“The decision about the murals is now in their hands,” said Duthu.

But Duthu, other committee members and administrators were tight-lipped about what that recommendation is.

Diana Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the college, said the community can expect to learn more soon.

“We anticipate the announcement of a decision regarding the Hovey murals this month,” she said.

Debate and Discussion

Dartmouth is not the only college wrestling with how to handle historical art pieces that are offensive to Native Americans — another, similarly offensive depiction in a 1930s set of paintings was in 2016 removed from display at the University of Wisconsin-Strout. A backlash to their removal led to their placement in a “controlled” gallery pace, where they can be viewed by appointment.

That same year, a 1942 painting depicting the founder of Williams College and Native Americans that had long decorated a room for socializing at the college was covered up, until a study committee recommended that it be contextualized with supplemental information alongside it.

In July of this year, the “all-too-common impulse to hide upsetting artwork rather than grapple with its message” was bemoaned in a report on campus censorship produced by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that protects First Amendment rights on college campuses.

The report documented art that has been found objectionable for negative depictions of vulnerable people, as well as for various other reasons — sexual, religious, and violent ideas have also been challenged by campus administrators around the country. Paintings in an art gallery at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston-Auburn were removed in April after it was discovered that the artist who created them was convicted of unlawful sexual conduct in 1999.

“Administrators insult both the artist and the campus community when they censor artistic expression,” Sarah McLaughlin, FIRE senior program officer, wrote in a release. “No person should appoint themself the sole authority over which art is worth seeing, and who should be allowed to see it.”

But Laura Beltz, a policy reform program officer at FIRE, made a distinction about the Hovey murals.

“This is something that was established by the university. That isn’t quite in the wheelhouse of what we do as far as defending student or faculty speech,” Beltz said, “because it was an installation from the school.”

A Teaching Tool

The Hovey murals have been the subject of protests and complaints, beginning in the early 1970s, when the college’s first female students were offended by the sexualized, subordinate and inferior role of the murals’ female subjects. And in the 1990s, Native American students expressed deep discomfort with, among other ideas, the lighthearted depiction of the drinking of alcohol, given that Native Americans have historically experienced a high prevalence of alcoholism, according to a 2011 book on the murals.

The room housing the Hovey murals was closed in 1979, and the murals were covered by wood panels from 1983 to 2010.

They were “uncovered rarely for special programs and classes,” according to Lawrence. “Since 2011, access to the murals has been limited to organized tours for Dartmouth classes guided by Hood staff and faculty.”

Some of those tours have been led by Mary Coffey, an associate professor of art history who uses the Hovey murals as a teaching tool.

Coffey said that, broadly speaking, public controversy over offensive imagery — whether in Disney cartoons, sports mascots or war monuments — shouldn’t be boiled down simply to a question of censorship.

“I try to steer away from that framework,” she said. “It’s not useful. It doesn’t help us get beyond knee-jerk arguments we make all the time about free speech.”

The raging national debate over Civil War monuments gets its heat from longstanding, unaddressed grievances by large, vulnerable segments of American society, she said.

“They matter because those things aren’t fixed and there’s no legal mechanism,” she said. “There’s no way to get that addressed properly. … It’s much easier in some ways to point at a piece of art and say that’s the problem and use that work of art to get a platform for talking about these structural problems.”

On the other hand, Coffey said, art that brings objectionable views to the fore has its own power.

“Visual culture has a powerful impact on naturalizing ideas about the past and the present, probably more powerful than textual culture,” she said. “It gives us a picture of our world and when it’s put in authoritative places, it has a powerful effect. It just does.”

The Hovey murals are an example of that dynamic.

“As a parent, would you want to bring your child into, say, the Hovey mural room and expose them to those images and not explain them in any way?” Coffey asked. “Would you be concerned about what they are going to intuit about the world?”

The unique history of the Hovey murals was the subject of the 2011 book of essays by Coffey and several other faculty members. According to that book, The Hovey Murals at Dartmouth College, the murals were completed in 1939 by Walter Beach Humphrey, who was asked by Dartmouth administrators to create a response to a different piece of controversial art on campus — The Epic of American Civilization, completed in 1934 by Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco.

Orozco’s mural, which is on the basement level of the Baker-Berry Library, is a strident and sweeping look at indigenous people, European colonists, industrialization and war, featuring, among other things, an axe-wielding Christ.

Humphrey was a 1914 Dartmouth graduate whose painting Patriotic Montage is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Both the Humphrey and the Orozco murals at Dartmouth have been challenged at various times, with different solutions suggested and, in some cases, implemented for a period of time. Coffey said that, no matter what the current administration does, the discussions are likely to continue and affect how the works are perceived.

“The object stays the same but everything around it changes. That change is always going to reignite or reconstitute the conversation about that object,” Coffey said. “At the end of the day, a work of art that doesn’t get ‘remade’ is a dead object.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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