Murals should stay put
November 29, 2005
It’s time for the federal government to ban Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” from schools and libraries, because its depiction of African-Americans is less than flattering.The government should also bar radio stations and music stores from playing or selling music from the 1960s that was anti-war or anti-government. After all, subversive music undermines support for the war on terror.As ridiculous as those ideas sound, they aren’t that far from our reality. The General Services Administration, an administrative arm of the federal government, is currently deciding whether to remove two murals by an artist with Redstone ties from the walls of the Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington, D.C. The murals, which Frank Mechau painted in the 1930s, depict U.S. mail carriers being chased and slaughtered by American Indians. Some American Indians and others object to the murals, “Pony Express” and “Dangers of the Mail,” for what they say is an inaccurate and unflattering portrayal of American Indians in the 1800s. On at least one point, critics of Mechau’s work have a point. According to the website of the city of St. Joseph, Mo., the historic home of the Pony Express, only one rider lost his life to attacks by Indians in the 19 months in the early 1860s that the Pony Express was in operation.But his work should remain in public view, even if it exaggerates history and portrays American Indians of the 1800s differently from what some today would prefer.Mechau was painting in the 1930s, a time when American Indians occupied a very different place in the American psyche from the one they occupy today. It wasn’t until society’s view of American Indians changed that Mechau’s work, which portrays American Indians as the dominant people of the West, became offensive.And Mechau’s work is historic in its own right, commissioned with government funding designed to keep Americans working during the Great Depression. It was a short-lived program that helped scores of American artists continue their work.If the GSA removes Mechau’s work, it will close an important window into our past. We would lose two murals created during the Great Depression depicting one view of the conflict between American Indians and settlers in the American West.Instead of removing the murals, the federal government should install educational materials next to them, correcting any historical errors and explaining how the modern image of American Indians has evolved over time. To let the GSA know what you think, e-mail comments to NCR.Historic.Preservation@gsa.gov by Thursday.