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.”
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.