Bad history?

Does the fact that something is historic always mean that it should be preserved and protected?  This is a question that I have been thinking about a lot lately.  Should historic homes in low income neighborhoods be restored if that means people in that neighborhood can’t afford to buy them?  Should street cars be prevented from existing on streets that desperately need them because the wires will block views of the Capitol Building?

Yesterday, I was introduced to another interesting example of this problem.  While doing some job networking at the EPA, I got a tour of the fantastic Ariel Rios building.  The structure was originally built to house the U.S.  Department of the Post Office, and has gorgeous architectural detailing, including a vast marbled room with intricately carved wooden ceilings that used to be the office of the Postmaster General.  The building is also a contributing structure to the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic District.

The details I found most exciting were 25 hand-painted murals that had been installed in the hallways between 1931 and 1938 as part of the federal government’s art program.  According to the GSA, “this was the first location for the integration of murals in federal buildings for New Deal Era federal art programs.”  And they are great!  Check this one out of postal workers sorting mail:

Well, almost all of them are great.  Given that the paintings were done in the 30’s, when people were not necessarily sensitive about cultures they did not understand, it is no surprise that six of the works are controversial to present day visitors.  Specifically, the paintings depict Native Americans in extremely violent scenes, that includes scalpings and rape.  For example, “Red Man Takes Mochila”:

From GSA:

Visitors and federal employees at the Ariel Rios Federal Building raised objections about the appropriateness of six murals, including complaints that the murals stereotype Native Americans and that they contain images that are inappropriate for the workplace.

The GSA is currently going through a historic preservation consultation process to figure out what to do with the offensive works.  (The pictures are painted directly onto the wall so they cannot be removed and stored somewhere else).  At the moment, they have placed a screen a few feet in front of the art that explains the problem.  Visitors can walk behind the screen to view the art.

So, what do you think?  When historic works are offensive to modern sensibilities should they be destroyed?  Is the fact that these paintings were OK to people in the 30’s historic in itself?

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4 thoughts on “Bad history?

  1. JEAN MORRIS

    I TOTALLY AGREE WITH PRESERVING THE ARTISTIC INTEGRITY OF THE MURAL; HOWEVER, THE MURAL DOES CAST A NEGATIVE VIEW OF AMERICAN INDIAN PEOPLES. THE MURAL COULD BE SUITABLY COVERED WITH A TAPESTRY PORTRAYING A MESSAGE DEPICTING ONE OF THE MANY GOOD CONTRIBUTIONS MADE BY AMERICAN INDIANS OF THEIR TIME.

  2. SK

    Don’t we we as American’s condemn countries like Russia for changing their text books and thereby “history”? Wouldn’t hiding the mural be effectively the same?
    The painting probably needs the opposing and contrasting side of the story for counterbalance and historical accuracy.

  3. I know I’m speaking on the side of preservation junkies, but…keep those! The WPA murals are too important to be destroyed, even though they might be terrifically offensive (which, um – they totally are.).

    The basement might be an okay place for the more culturally sinister paintings, but we should remember that they exist, and any exhibit about one should include at the very least a reference to the other. The WPA was the type of progressive social (and economic!) reform we should remember and take pride in. But while we’re celebrating that, it’s important to remember the flip side – ugly perspectives and some really dark social prejudices. But it might be good for us to be reminded of – and offended by – these types of images. What’s that terribly cliche truth about history? We’re doomed to repeat it until we learn from it? Something like that.

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