The University of Notre Dame, one of the oldest and most prestigious US centers of higher learning, will cover murals depicting Christopher Columbus out of concern that the art works depict a skewed history of colonial America.
Painted on the walls of the Catholic institution’s main building — a grand structure with a golden dome built in 1879 in the Midwestern state of Indiana — the 12 murals display various moments in the life and exploration of Columbus.
Critics say the images celebrate outdated stereotypes of Native Americans while ignoring the devastating consequences of colonialism.
The university’s president Rev John Jenkins said in an open letter that the works, painted by Luigi Gregori in the 1880s, were intended to portray Catholic immigrants in a positive light at a time when they faced discrimination in America.
However, he acknowledged that in recent years the murals have come to be perceived as “at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’s voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this ‘new’ world and at worst demeaning toward them.”
While the school attempted to address the problem by providing brochures that put the murals in historic context, Jenkins said that has not been enough.
The murals, which were painted directly onto the building’s plaster walls and thus cannot be removed, will be preserved but covered. The university plans to create a separate, permanent display of photographs of the murals that will put them in proper historic context.
“We wish to preserve artistic works originally intended to celebrate immigrant Catholics who were marginalized at the time in society, but do so in a way that avoids unintentionally marginalizing others,” Jenkins said.
The school’s Native American Student Association praised the move in a Facebook post as a “thoughtful and wise decision.”
“This is a good step towards acknowledging the full humanity of those Native people who have come before us.”
The Catholic university was founded in 1842 by Edward Sorin, a French missionary priest, and currently has about 12,000 students.