Fate of Hovey murals remains a subject of controversy

by Hilary Becker | 11/8/06 6:00am

Editor's Note: This article is the second of a series examining hidden artworks at Dartmouth.

Resting in the basement of Thayer Dining Hall are a series of images that have been called deeply offensive, racist and insulting, and have, over the years, continued to spark debate.

The fate of the controversial Hovey murals is particularly interesting to contemplate in light of the College's recent uncovering of the Tiffany and Royal Bavarian stained glass windows in Rollins Chapel, which had been concealed since 1972 as a means of making the space less denominational.

Painted in 1937-38 by American illustrator Walter Beach Humphrey '14, famous for his covers of "The Saturday Evening Post" and "Collier's," the Hovey murals were a reaction to the famous Orozco Frescoes in Baker Library.

In a 1938 issue of the Dartmouth Alumni magazine, Humphrey wrote, "If my allusions to the celebrated murals in Baker Library seem ill chosen to anyone ... I feel it excusable to use them as a foil for my own ideas. There are only a few things so sacred that we cannot at some time joke about them."

The paintings depict the founding of the college as parodied by Richard B. Hovey in his song "Eleazar Wheelock." The last verse reads, "Eleazar and the big chief harangued and gesticulated;/ they founded Dartmouth College and the big chief matriculated./ Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum/ Was 500 gallons of New England rum."

Humphrey's murals are an undeniably true representation of the boisterous, if offensive, song. Wheelock appears as a fat, bumbling reverend, and the "Indians," filling mugs with rum spilling from Wheelock's cup, read books upside down and occasionally sport large, green D's painted on their chests.

Meant to adorn the walls of the former Rathskeller Pub (later the Hovey Grill), the murals were "designed to provide the robust, masculine atmosphere that Hovey loved." While they are arguably a comical, light-hearted representation of an old Dartmouth anthem, their blatant mockery of Native Americans and Protestantism led to student protest and their consequent covering in 1983. The original showcasing space was subsequently made a storage area, but reopened in 2000 as a game room where the murals remain covered with removable gray panels.

Over the years, several proposals have been made to restore the images to the public eye. In 1993, the College contemplated turning the former Hovey Grill into an art gallery to display the murals, but those plans never materialized.

With the demolition of Thayer Dining Hall scheduled for the near future, some concern was raised this spring about the prospect of the murals' demolition, but these fears were quelled by Brian Kennedy, the director of the Hood Museum of Art, who controls the murals.

In March, Kennedy assured the Dartmouth community that "the murals are important cultural artifacts of Dartmouth's history and will be saved ... As of [March], a committee is in the process of being formed under the direction of the Provost's office to consider how best to remove and preserve them."

In this vein, it seems the current tide against the display of the Hovey Murals is turning. While the community generally recognizes their offensive nature and would likely shy away from displaying the murals in an overtly public, unavoidable space like the dining hall, it recognizes the murals as a part of Dartmouth's history, and as a historical expression of a particular point in time. Members of the Native American studies and art history departments have gone on record endorsing the uncovering of the murals.

In 2000, art history professor Robert McGrath told The Dartmouth, "I have long been a critic of the College administration for its practice of censoring the murals. The logic is that we might as well go into the library and burn any book that is offensive to any group. In my view, once you open the Pandora's box of censorship, then there is no place to stop it."

Colleen Larimore '85, former director of the Native American studies program, said, "I think this is a turning point for Native Americans at Dartmouth. While we still consider the murals to be degrading and offensive, we cannot deny how Native Americans were viewed in the past at Dartmouth and in this country. Rather than fleeing from this past, we must face it and learn from it."