Allard: A Proper Exhibit

The Hovey murals should be remembered, but in the right light.

by Sydney Allard | 9/21/18 2:05am

This month, a study group created by the College will recommend a course of action regarding the Hovey murals. The murals, originally painted in the 1930s by Walter Beach Humphrey, a member of the Class of 1914, illustrate a drinking song written by another Dartmouth student, Richard Hovey. The murals used to decorate the walls of a faculty room in Thayer dining hall (now the basement of The Class of 1953 Commons), but are now locked out of view. Depending on the study group’s conclusions, the murals may remain where they are, be destroyed or be relocated. I hope that they will be relocated.

In the 11th grade, I learned about Japanese internment camps. I had read in my U.S. history textbook that propaganda at the time was racist — that ubiquitous posters depicted Japanese-Americans as brutes and savages. It was only when I saw the posters for myself, though, that I understood how deeply offensive and wrong American culture and politics were at the time. Seeing the racism with my own eyes gave the lesson a staying power that it would not have had otherwise.

It is one thing to read or hear about the things that people’s countries, families, communities and cultures have done wrong throughout history. It is another thing entirely, though, to see them. There is a reason that people travel to Auschwitz. While one can read about the Holocaust in books and learn about it in history classes, seeing concentration camps up close makes the atrocities that Jews and other minorities faced in World War II even more powerful and disturbing.

It is to this end that I believe the College should not destroy the Hovey murals. Art is an indicator of culture, and the Hovey murals illustrate a dark and shameful part of Dartmouth’s culture. If members of this community are to effectively change Dartmouth’s dominant attitude toward Native Americans, everyone needs to be aware of what we have done wrong and of how we can do better. Seeing that history is a powerful way to learn about it.

There is a right and a wrong way to preserve the Hovey murals — the context absolutely matters. A statue of J. Marion Sims, a surgeon who experimented on non-consenting enslaved women without giving them anesthesia, used to stand across from the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan. The statue ­­­­— tall, bronze and proud with a plaque to identify Sims — was not an acceptable way to remember the medical community’s misdeeds. The statue’s tone was one of respect and exaltation, not of shame and sadness, as a sobering reminder of this country’s troubled past should be. The context was totally insensitive and all wrong. Dartmouth, too, must be careful to strike a balance between illuminating its mistakes and venerating its past.

According to New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, the statue is being moved to J. Marion Sims’ grave site in Brooklyn. There, it will be accompanied by a commemorative plaque about the women he violated in the name of scientific progress. In a graveyard, with information about Sims’ wrongdoings presented, the statue will take on an informative, if upsetting, role. J. Marion Sims did exploit enslaved black women, and the medical community accepted his findings and even venerated him for them. People can’t atone for their past sins without remembering them, however shameful and disturbing they may be. Placing the statue of Sims in a more appropriate setting it is a good first step, and the same is true for the Hovey murals.

It is upsetting to me and, I hope, to all of the Dartmouth community that the school we all love fostered a culture that was so racist and offensive. But to ignore that uncomfortable, even painful, part of Dartmouth is to prevent a full reckoning with the past. We cannot apologize for transgressions to which we won’t fully admit. Dartmouth students who feel comfortable doing so should visit the Hovey murals to be reminded of how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go.

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