Defacement of a Knight Library Mural

A Message from Adriene Lim, Dean of Libraries and Philip H. Knight Chair

An act that will be viewed as an understandable protest by some and inexcusable vandalism by others occurred in the University of Oregon’s Knight Library this week, as an unknown person smeared red paint across the words "racial heritage" in the Knight Library’s mural, "Mission of a University."

The person also posted a small placard near the mural that posed the question: "Which art do you choose to conserve now?”

That is a crucial question for librarians, archivists, and library professionals. We aspire to base our work on the values of intellectual freedom, democracy, and social responsibility, but we also question the inherent cultural biases we bring to our positions and the abuses of power and oppression that have undeniably been part of our society’s past and present.

Those of us who espouse these library values believe the search for truth and knowledge requires access to the perspectives of not only those in the dominant culture but also the voices of people with less power in our society, people whose viewpoints are often suppressed or omitted from the narrative. It demands critical thinking, reflection, and respectful community dialogue. From this perspective, we have also vigorously challenged censorship, as we believe access to a broad range of human knowledge and experience is necessary for a university’s community and our democracy to evolve and thrive.   

In answer to the question, “Which art do you choose to conserve now?” my immediate response is, “We conserve the art entrusted to us and accessioned into our collections, including art that may be offensive to some, and we would challenge any attempts to censor that art.” Although the murals in question are not part of the Libraries’ collections, they are located physically in the Knight Library. We have a stake in the conservation of these works, because they are artifacts related to the university’s history, and because they are original features of the Knight Library, a registered National Historic Place. In the Ellis Lawrence Building Survey, architectural scholar Michael Shellenbarger called the main library,  "a monument to the depression era PWA and WPA programs which financed it," and "one of Oregon's best examples of the integrated art and architecture that characterized that last great surge of public building before WWII.”

The inscription murals were created in 1937, the year the main library opened. They were commissioned and created by university leaders using funds from the Student Building Fee and the Alumni Holding Company. The murals are part of the university’s history and, as such, deserve appropriate protection from damage.

Having stated all of the above, however, I agree that the murals’ placement in our library context has serious implications for us all, including library faculty, staff, and administrators, given our stated values of diversity and inclusion. The debate about the murals has inspired a broad range of reactions from us as library colleagues, similar to those occurring within the community. Our reactions range from exhortations to remove the murals on one side of the spectrum to expressions of outrage over the damage done to these public artworks, and many other stances in between. Over the past two years, we have held open forums and debates, initiated a contextualization project, and installed exhibits to address these murals and other societal issues related to the university’s and the region’s history, including troubling aspects of that history that continue to affect the present. 

On a personal note, I share this recollection of my days as a new librarian at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was involved in producing a major exhibit on "Lesbian Pulp Fiction” in one of our libraries. The year was 1997, when being lesbian or gay was still viewed as deviant and perverted in mainstream culture (and still is by some in our society). The exhibit included panels that I had borrowed from the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). After the opening of the exhibit, someone vandalized the works; they painted the word "dyke" over an artifact and damaged a few of the LHA panels.

My point for sharing this story is to illustrate why I am convinced that condoning acts of vandalism like this or censoring or removing works with which we are offended will ultimately and more deeply affect those of us in the minority. This experience and many other incidents I can relate, including demands from individuals to remove what they deem to be offensive books and materials from the library, inform my own reactions to this incident of vandalism now.

I advocate for continuing our cross-campus project to contextualize these artifacts for educational and cultural reasons, and for allowing the relics to remain uncensored as evidence of the embedded racist and sexist legacy against which many of us still struggle. They have been and are objects that can inform our efforts to advocate for advancement of social justice. Defacing, shrouding, or removing these types of artifacts undermines the potential for us to engage critically about and oppose the supremacist ideologies that were implicit in their creation. It will obscure the evidence of racism and sexism in the history of the university that many of us want to confront head-on.

I ask community members from all sides of the debate to honor the University’s and the Libraries’ policies, which we have put into place to help us regulate our public spaces. We will continue to address the murals and other artifacts in the Libraries’ ongoing contextualization project. Until such time that the new Presidential Task Force on Recognizing Our Diverse History formally considers the murals’ disposition, I encourage all members of our university community to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue about these issues at forums and through other means during the coming academic year.

Finally, I would like community members to know we have transferred the protester’s placard to the University Archives for consideration as an artifact of protest at the university, and we are investigating whether the damaged mural can be repaired. Thank you for considering my viewpoints. 

Adriene Lim
Dean of Libraries and Philip H. Knight Chair
University of Oregon Libraries