Tufts Will Remove and Conserve Murals

After discussion and debate, the university has decided to take down exclusionary murals from Alumnae Lounge, while making them more accessible for teaching and research
An old, large mural depicting Tufts University with students and faculty and administrators as imagined in the 1950s. The mural will be taken down and preserved for future study.
The west wall mural in Alumnae Lounge. “The murals tell a story: that there must be other representations of Tufts’ increasing diversity,” said Pearl Robinson.
June 26, 2019

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For nearly sixty-five years, murals in Alumnae Lounge, a popular meeting space on the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus, have illustrated one part of the university’s story. On the east wall, benefactor Charles Tufts gestures to Tufts’ first building, Ballou Hall, atop austere Walnut Hill. On the west wall, the hill is illuminated and populated with students—engaged in sports, walking to class, or performing—as well as presidents, deans, and other administrators. Throughout are images of buildings that, as a 1955 guide to the murals put it, bear “the great names of men” who helped write Tufts’ history.

As a matter of historical record, however, the murals tell an incomplete story about the origins and growth of Tufts. There is not a single image of a person of color, for example, despite the fact that black students were enrolled at Tufts as early as the late nineteenth century, according to university archives. And as faculty and students shared at two public forums, the murals do not reflect the diversity of the Tufts community, both past and present.

That missing narrative has, in turn, made the space of Alumnae Lounge feel unwelcoming to many members of today’s university community. In an open forum last year, students spoke about feeling alienated by the murals and questioned the university’s support for imagery that undermines its values of diversity and inclusion—a response especially important because Alumnae Lounge is a frequent gathering space for awards ceremonies and other events.

“Students have told us that they don’t want to receive awards in Alumnae Lounge because they feel excluded, and that’s important to hear,” said Deborah Kochevar, senior vice president and provost ad interim. “We want to attract a diversity of people to the university. But no less important, when they arrive, we want them to feel they belong here.”

The east wall mural. In light of this type of feedback—and in acknowledgement of the decaying condition of the murals themselves—Kochevar last fall convened a review committee tasked with making a recommendation that would preserve the murals’ historical merit and original intent, while addressing current concerns.

Based on the committee’s recommendation, the university has decided to remove the murals, professionally conserve them, and archive them. Meanwhile, Tufts University Art Galleries will build a comprehensive online archive of the murals to ensure they will be broadly and easily accessible for teaching and research. (Until that archive is complete, read more about the history and origins of the murals here.)  

The committee concluded that this decision is an evolution of the original intent of Alumnae Lounge. The lounge and the murals were donated to the university by the women of Jackson College, who began raising money for them in the 1920s. With the creation of Alumnae Lounge, the Jackson graduates made the first significant gesture of expansion and inclusion of women within the larger Tufts community by having this lounge built. This next step “is a powerful way to carry forward a mission that inspired Jackson women to fundraise over decades,” Kochevar said. “It is part of an iterative process of diversity and inclusion.”

Additonal panel of the east wall mural.Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center and fellow committee member, said “the first and most significant factor” framing the committee’s recommendation is that Alumnae Lounge “honors all Tufts alumni,” while the murals “make alumni of color invisible, and, therefore tell an incomplete story. By erasing the presence of students of color . . . from the historical record, the murals create an unwelcoming space for current students of color.” 

Looking ahead, the discussions surrounding the murals in Alumnae Lounge have highlighted the need to establish a university-wide public art committee that will develop policies around public art spaces on all Tufts campuses and ensure that they represent the rich diversity of the university community. As part of this new focus, an ad hoc committee will guide the future decorative scheme specifically for Alumnae Lounge.

The Context of the Decision

Tufts is hardly alone in reckoning with controversial art on campus. Dartmouth College, for example, has moved murals that disparaged Native Americans to an off-campus storage site managed by its museum, recognizing that the message they send was incompatible with the university’s values. The University of Kentucky decided to cover a fresco that depicted imagery of slavery, as well as engage a committee to develop a long-term plan, and Notre Dame reached a similar decision about nineteenth-century murals of Christopher Columbus.

Decisions made about art at other institutions were part of the review process conducted by the Tufts committee. Chaired by Andrew McClellan, professor of art and art history, the group included Moore; Dina Deitsch, director and chief curator of the Tufts University Art Galleries; Pearl Robinson, associate professor of political science; Kate Kaplan, AG95, A20P, A22P, alumni trustee; and Robert Mack, associate provost and chief diversity officer for the Medford/Somerville and School of the Museum of Fine Arts campuses.

Mural detail.In reporting back to Kochevar, the members wrote that the committee “strongly feels that the murals do not reflect the dynamic, ever-evolving composition of the student and alumni body (or faculty and staff).” They continued: “Even when they were installed, the murals offered only a selective view of the university’s history, campus, leadership, and students . . . . In our view, it is time to update the image of the university bodied forth in this important room.”

The recommendation was also informed by months of productive on-campus conversation and debate. In the fall of 2017, for example, Deitsch heard from Adriana Zavala, associate professor of art and art history and then-director of the the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, as well as from Daniel McCusker, senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, and co-chair of the Equal Education Opportunity Committee, which facilitates conversations among faculty, staff, and students around issues of equal access and social justice. “Both faculty expressed to me that there were many conversations on campus about people feeling alienated,” said Deitsch, who also heard similar feedback from other faculty and staff.

In response to these concerns, and following a December 2017 meeting with staff and faculty, the Tufts University Art Galleries hosted an open forum on March 5, 2018. Among those who shared their perspectives were students who questioned the university’s support for imagery that doesn’t reflect its current values.

Sung-Min Kim, Maxine Bell, and Ryan Tam—all undergraduates from a course named The Latino Presence in Art and Visual Culture—discussed a project that involved engaging with the art. “We were really interested in the Alumnae Lounge mural because it was so immediate to the community,” Kim said, and yet it put forward “an antiquated narrative that we thought was not supported in this community.”

Mural detail.Even as everyone empathized with students, faculty, and staff made uncomfortable by the work, some members of the community have expressed concern about any plan that would remove the murals altogether. Former provost Sol Gittleman, H10, for example, hoped the flaws could inform teachable moments. The imagery of the murals speaks to a sense of “American triumphalism” as seen through the eyes of Tufts’ Unitarian Universalist founders, he said. “To not have the historical record up there to see who we were seems to me to be an act of denying history.”

McClellan approached his work on the committee from a similar starting place. As an art historian, he said, “I am principally opposed to erasing any form of historical record.” And at the forum he expressed concern about any plan that would “consign these objects to oblivion.” The committee explored options to modify the murals in place, but those ultimately proved untenable.

Painted in egg tempera on canvas, the murals “are in terrible condition due to age and damage,” Deitsch said, noting how the paint has cracked in places and has been stripped off entirely by tape in others. She welcomes the opportunity to preserve them, while also using digital tools and strategies to increase their visibility. “As part of the university’s permanent art collection, the murals are important historical images,” she said. “We are being very careful about moving forward to retain that history.” She envisions new approaches to understanding the murals, such as an online exhibition her department created for the bust of John Brown, an icon of the abolitionist movement. 

Like Deitsch, McClellan’s initial concerns were allayed once the committee’s research determined the murals could be protected and made even more easily accessible. “Once I learned that they could be safely removed and stored and then re-used for exhibition purposes—and comprehensively photographed and [made] available in digital form for access online at any time,” he said. “I was moved toward taking them down by our students who said they felt unwelcome in the space because they were so conspicuously excluded from the murals.” 

Kaplan, who is also former president of the Tufts University Alumni Association, found herself working through a similar thought process during her time on the committee. The murals were due a significant measure of respect because they were a “gift given by alumnae and have been in a room that has deep meaning to a lot of alumni,” Kaplan explained. “That being said, we have existing alumni and we have future alumni,” she added, “and to be a strong alumni body in the future we have to be forward-looking.”

In addition to recommending that the murals be removed, the committee recommended that, given “the room’s symbolic and practical purpose, whatever group is tasked with the future decoration of the space should be fully representative of the rich diversity of Tufts students and alumni.” This will be among the responsibilities of the new public art committee, which will also be charged with establishing a formal conservation program for works in place across the university. “One unexpected legacy of the murals is that they gave us a push to make this important step, and one that will benefit all our campuses,” Kochevar said.

Considering the long view is essential, Robinson said, for the university’s ongoing commitment to its core values. And in that sense, Alumnae Lounge will be an important barometer for how well the university communicates those values.

“The murals tell a story: that there must be other representations of Tufts’ increasing diversity,” Robinson said. “So, we are grappling with a challenge about how to tell the story of inclusion and diversity. Across all sectors of campus life, we need to ask: ‘how are we doing?’  Alumnae Lounge can become a site that prods that process forward.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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