Recent national headlines have focused on Indiana University’s refusal to remove a Thomas Hart Benton mural depicting members of the Ku Klux Klan before a burning cross. The decision became a topic for national scrutiny and discussion this summer after an article in the Indianapolis Star about a petition demanding the mural’s removal was picked up by USA Today. However, the present controversy largely disregards the function of the KKK imagery in Benton’s mural and echoes previous calls to remove the work — which seem to erupt anew with each successive generation of IU students.
The offending image appears in one of the 22 panels that make up Benton’s “A Social History of Indiana” (1933). The so-called “Indiana Murals” were commissioned in 1932 for the state’s hall in the Century of Progress Exposition opening in Chicago the following year. The plan put forth by the state committee’s chairman, Colonel Richard Lieber, was a dramatic departure from the typical fair display: a massive mural program that would showcase Indiana’s history.
At Lieber’s recommendation, the state offered Benton the third mural commission of his career, following “America Today” (completed in 1930 for the New School; today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and “The Arts of Life in America” (completed in 1932 for the Whitney Museum; today at the New Britain Museum of American Art). Benton presented the industrial and cultural history of Indiana from pre-Columbian to modern times across 12-foot-high panels, 11 each about culture and industry, spanning the 232-foot perimeter of the almost 3,000-square-foot exhibition space. Four additional panels, two blank and two painted, were placed above the entrance and exit.
After the exposition closed, the murals were dismantled and stored in a barn at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds. With no consensus about what to do with them, the panels languished there for years until Indiana University President Herman B Wells worked with Lieber and Governor Clifford M. Townsend to secure the donation of the 22 panels to IU in 1938.
Plans were drawn for the IU Auditorium and the largest sections of the Indiana murals — the central eight cultural and eight industrial panels — were incorporated seamlessly into the lobby area, dubbed the Hall of Murals. Benton arrived in Bloomington in 1940 to supervise the installation.
The first and last panels of the cultural and industrial portions of the mural were placed in the theater (now a cinema) next-door. The penultimate cultural and industrial panels, “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” and “Electric Power, Motor Cars, Steel,” went to a room in nearby Woodburn Hall, the closest classroom building at the time.
This proved to be an unwise decision, as the image of hooded Klansmen looms over students participating in freshman orientation, final exams, and class lectures. However, in Benton’s rendering, the Klan recedes into the background, its actions of hate dwarfed by a nurse caring for black and white children at the progressive Indianapolis City Hospital and by a team of journalists representing the media’s investigation of Klan activities. Although Benton intended to pay homage to the Indianapolis Times, winner of the 1928 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for exposing the Klan’s influence and corruption of state government, these images can be a jarring reminder of a history of racial and religious oppression and victimization.
In August of this year, “in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville and other acts of hate on college campuses,” IU alumna Jacqueline Barrie created an online petition to “remove [the] KKK mural in Woodburn Hall,” claiming that the panel violates the university’s Freedom from Discrimination policy. As of this writing, the petition had just over 1,600 signatures.
In response, IU’s Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program sponsored a forum on September 26 for students, faculty, and community members to discuss what should be done with this panel. By all accounts, the conversation was passionate yet civil. Three days later, Provost Lauren Robel released a nearly 2,000-word statement on the murals with the conclusion that classes will no longer be held in Woodburn 100, the room housing the mural, and that the room will “convert to other uses,” such as public programming, at the end of the semester. Barrie has not taken down the petition, but wrote in an update on September 29: “I do consider this a good solution for the safety and concern for all students and faculty and a step in progress for Indiana.”
This is not the first time the mural panel has sparked criticism. Asked about the present controversy, Curator of Campus Art Sherry Rouse, who oversees an estimated 20,000 objects across IU’s eight campuses, told Hyperallergic, “that mural has had controversy since it was installed.”
This was most notable in 2002, when members of the Black Student Union pressed for its removal and the controversy was reported in newspapers across the country. In response, IU Chancellor Sharon Brehm required all professors teaching in Woodburn 100 to discuss the mural with their classes. This policy soon fell away. In an effort to educate students about the mural’s history and head off any controversy, the complete mural scheme was reproduced in miniature above an informational panel outside the classroom. This effort, however, is largely ignored. Acknowledging the difficulty of addressing the issue satisfactorily, Rouse observed, “the freshmen graduate, and a new group of kids comes in.”
Regardless of Benton’s intentions, given the difficulty in educating a continuous stream of incoming students about the history and symbolism of the panel, many of the issues at stake in the discussion of the Benton mural are the same issues raised in the current national conversation about the display of Confederate monuments. No student should be made to feel unsafe or “other,” and the images a university displays serve as a reflection of its values. This is of particular concern on a campus with a student body that is only 4.5% black.
In an email, Assistant Professor Phoebe Wolfskill, who teaches African American art at IU, voiced support for Robel’s decision. “I teach the murals regularly but almost never have access to Woodburn 100 because the classroom is already occupied when I’m teaching,” she said. “Woodburn 100’s availability as a potential gallery will be ideal for my classes.”
While the matter has been resolved for now, history indicates that the issue of removing the panel is likely to surface again. Questioned about the idea of relocating the panel, Rouse declared, “That’ll never happen. There’s no place in the [IU Eskenazi Museum of Art] for that.” While this reaction was based on the size of the panels relative to that of the museum’s modern gallery, removing the panels from Woodburn Hall would also require dismantling both the interior and exterior doorways of that building. In addition, poor early storage and Benton’s unique egg tempera and varnish techniques have made conservation a serious concern.
Rouse takes the recent petition and debate in stride. “As far as I’m concerned, controversy is good,” she said. “Controversy is what helps us have conversation … and as an academic institution, I think we have a responsibility to inspire with controversy.”