I have been writing and speaking about the movement to remove statues that range from confederate leaders to Columbus to Supreme Court justices to Founders (here and here and here and here). This includes the calls for the removal of monuments to George Washington and Columbus. Now, the University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins has announced that a historic mural by Luigi Gregori will be covered up due to objections to the harm caused to Native Americans by Columbus and those who followed him. The famous mural depicting Columbus’ life and exploration was completed in around 1882. As should not come as a surprise to many on this blog, I view the decision as a mistake and a missed opportunity.
President John Jenkins wrote to students and faculty that “as we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day . . . at Notre Dame, I write to let you know of a recent decision.” He noted that “[m]any have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’ voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this ‘new’ world and at worst demeaning toward them . . . ” Accordingly, the university will cover up the mural. He explained that “many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’ voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this ‘new’ world and at worst demeaning toward them.”
I can understand that objection. However, rather than literally covering up a historic art piece, the University had the opportunity for a learning experience in placing works near the piece that give a more accurate representation of the period. It could also include discussion of the controversy and the decision to preserve a historical art piece while extending the context around the piece to address these issues.
There is no denying Columbus’ historical significance. Millersville University professor Thomas Tirado wrote in 2000 that “It is nearly impossible to over-exaggerate the historical significance of Christopher Columbus. The ultimate expression of the Columbian Legacy has been nothing less than global in its impact.”
Our art often captures our struggle for equality and truth. While originally meant as a celebration of Columbus, it now represents something different for different people. That contemporary meaning is part of the power of public art pieces. They often treat a lesson not intended by the original artists but perhaps of greater importance to our generation.
Jenkins’ letter could well have been memorialized in nearby representations and placards: “whatever else Columbus’ arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions.”
So the mural will no longer be visible in the hallway due to woven coverings that will leave the aged art intact underneath. At least it will not be destroyed and perhaps a later Administration will see the value in both preserving and explaining historical works.