UO moves to cover controversial murals in Knight Library

Knight Library (Akendall/CC BY-SA)

In a move to acknowledge conversations about anti-racism taking place around the world amid the Black Lives Matter movement, the University of Oregon has ordered four murals in the Knight Library that contain racist, exclusionary language and imagery to be covered.

The murals, which date to the library’s construction in 1937, are affixed to the walls and cannot be removed without risking significant damage to the artwork and the building. Secure covers will be installed by a Portland conservator sometime before Oct. 1.

“This is something that is long overdue,” said Provost and Senior Vice President Patrick Phillips. “This is a historic time in our country, and we need to listen to members of our community who have felt the hurt and sting of racism on our campus.

“I am firmly against the destruction or censoring of art in any form, but it would be disingenuous for anyone to say that these pieces, especially in a library whose central mission is to welcome and support the entire campus, are ‘just art,’ he said. “They represent much more and it is incumbent upon us to address that fact. This action allows the pieces themselves to be preserved, and help us to look toward a new future of representation within these specific spaces.”

The idea of covering the murals is not new. They face the main east and west stairwells in the Knight Library and have been the subject of student, staff and faculty complaints of racial bias for several years, and some of them have previously been vandalized.

One of the murals, titled “The Mission of a University,” references the “conservation … of our racial heritage,” referring to white people.

Two others, called “Development of the Arts” and “Development of the Sciences,” show dozens of human figures engaged in art and science. Primitive-looking indigenous people are pictured at the bottom, using early tools and equipment. At the top, exclusively white scholars are shown in a variety of fields doing their work.

To many library users, including Native American students who walk past the murals every day, the depictions imply white authority and advantage in higher education.

Temerity Bauer, a junior biology major enrolled in the Clark Honors College, first noticed the murals when walking to a class in the library.  Bauer is a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, serves as co-chair of the UO Native American Student Union, and recently was awarded a presitigious Udall Fellowship. She became interested in studying medicine because her reservation has been identified as a cancer cluster, and she wants to help.

“Being a STEM major, you have to use the library a lot, because we’re studying all the time,” Bauer said.

She saw the murals, she said, and thought: “Wait a minute, this can’t be right. This can’t really be here.”

The depictions deeply discouraged her, she said, so she stopped using the library as a place to study if she could avoid it.

“How are we going to be successful and confident in an environment like that?” Bauer said.

Others describe the murals as oppressive.

“The continuation of these things being publicly displayed on campus is the continuation of erasure of Native people,” said Angela Noah, a sophomore and reigning Miss Indian at UO, a tribal advocacy platform. “I want to exist. I want to be here. I want to feel safe on my own campus. I want to believe that I actually have a shot in helping my community, and that kind of representation is harmful for a lot of us.”

Noah is a first-generation college student and a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. She said when she was accepted to UO, her family warned her that she wouldn’t always feel welcome in spaces or even classrooms, and that she would need to “protect her spirit.”

She spoke of a difficult first year, saying the university displayed an unwelcoming environment toward her and other Native students. It had an impact on her mental health and self-esteem. She said people don’t understand how a simple thing like public art at a public institution harms Native students who are starting from scratch and striving to bring knowledge and resources back to their tribal communities.

“Every student who identifies as indigenous on that campus’s existence is an act of resilience,” she said.

Mark Watson, interim dean of UO Libraries, said it was time for the university to act.

“These murals have been controversial as long as I’ve worked in the library, and that’s over 30 years,” Watson said.

In 2017, the Knight Library Public Art Task Force was convened to study the murals and make recommendations. Made up of students, librarians and faculty, the task force installed interpretive signs near the murals, created an online resource guide, curated a student art exhibition and held several public forums in the library.

Despite mixed feelings in the community and among library staff, the murals remained. The university at the time reasoned that although the murals were part of the physical building, it was the library staff’s duty to conserve both archives and artifacts of the historic library building.

In 2018, the words “racial heritage” were crossed out in red paint on one of the pieces, and a sign was put up that said: “Which art do you choose to conserve now?” The paint was cleaned off.

This summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s slaying at the hands of Minneapolis police and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations about racist symbols in public spaces reached a new prominence.

Protestors tore down the UO’s Pioneer and Pioneer Mother statues, two prominent symbols of colonialism to many Native students. The Knight Library also had its plate glass door broken and splattered with paint and graffiti. The words “Whose racial heritage?” were painted on the sidewalk outside.

For years, student groups, including the Native American Student Union and the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, had called on library officials to address the murals’ presence, and Watson said he agreed that covering them would be the right step. This reversal is a sign of the times, he said.

“What’s changed is the George Floyd incident has really shown all of us that there does come a time when the need for action and doing more has progressed to a point where you can’t just lean back on some of those arguments that we’ve made in the past,” Watson said. “We’re well aware now that public art can create a hostile or unwelcoming environment for people.”

This summer, UO President Michael Schill and Phillips asked Watson to move ahead with that plan, working with campus stakeholders to do so.

The covering agreed upon will cost $31,940. It will be a tamper-free yet removable aluminum panel covered with a printed photo reproduction of the Minnesota Kasota limestone walls around it, camouflaging the covers until a possible new depiction is agreed upon, Watson said.

“We’re looking at this as sort of a multiphased plan,” he said.

To decide what new work could replace the murals, “it would take longer and need to involve more people” to have input and representation from around campus,” Watson added.

“I just hope whatever forum, whatever committee is making the decisions to keep this mural up, have indigenous representation at the table,” Noah said. “It’s been a long overdue opportunity, and we’re ready.”

—by Anna Glavash, University Communications