Murals of Old Dartmouth

Last week, Dartmouth College convened a study group to decide the future of the “Hovey Murals.” The murals, well-known for their controversial depictions of the founding of the College and Native Americans, are located in a closed room in the basement of Class of 1953 Commons. The group is scheduled to report back to Interim Provost David Kotz on their findings about the murals by the end of the term. Some have speculated that the study group will intend to either open them to all of campus or close them permanently.

The Department of Political Science panel is part of Walter Beach Humphrey's "Hovey Murals," completed in the late 1930s in the faculty dining hall at Dartmouth College. ("The Hovey Murals at Dartmouth College: Culture and Contexts")

Image Courtesy of Dartmouth College

The man behind the story of the murals was Richard Hovey, a loyal son of Dartmouth. A member of the Class of 1885, he is best remembered for penning the College’s school song, Men of Dartmouth. In addition to his magnum opus, Mr. Hovey wrote a lesser known song, a mythical account of Dartmouth’s founding. Titled “Eleazor Wheelock,” the song tells the story of Wheelock’s move to New Hampshire to educate the Natives and found Dartmouth College. Its depiction of the Indians as a friendly people and its idealization of Dartmouth’s infamous drinking might have been what led the College to eventually de-recognize it as an official song. However, students of Old Dartmouth continued to sing it in tribute to Hovey for several years after. In fact, Walter Humphrey (Class of 1914), with the backing of President Hopkins, painted a series of murals based on the song in the basement of Thayer Dining Hall, now Class of 1953 Commons.

Completed in 1938, the murals were in response to José Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization, which still adorns the walls of the basement of Baker-Berry library. Orozco’s murals were condemned by alumni for being too critical of the College by alumni since it focused on the harmful impact of European colonists on North America. Humphrey’s murals, now the controversial “Hovey Murals”, depict Wheelock as a jolly old man who loved drinking, and the Native Indians as primitive, but amiable people. In the early 1970s, around the time the College banned the use of the Indian logo, they boarded up the Hovey Murals and prohibited the public from viewing it without prior permission. Orozco’s murals, which were always thought to be antithetical to Dartmouth’s values, continues to occupy a prominent position in Dartmouth’s signature building.

The study group will now deliberate on these historic murals and decide their fate. The study group’s members are: Co-chairs Juliette Bianco ‘94, deputy director of the Hood Museum, and Bruce Duthu ‘80, professor of Native American studies; Kianna Mist Burke ‘12, GRAD ‘19, interim director of the Native American Program; Michelle Clarke, associate professor of government; Mary Coffey, associate professor of art history; Brooke Hadley ‘18, a member of Native Americans at Dartmouth, a student group; Jennie Harlan ‘20, Native Americans at Dartmouth; Nick Reo, assistant professor of Native American and environmental studies; and Anna Tsouhlarakis ‘99, Native American Visiting Council. Hopefully, this group will have a productive and balanced discussion on the subject and possesses the sufficient diversity of opinion to do so.

It is troubling that we are even having this conversation. For a College that takes pride in its traditions, Dartmouth is surprisingly willing to hide its past to pacify the social justice warriors. The Hovey Murals are more than just paintings, they are a symbol of Old Dartmouth. Humphrey painted them to celebrate the College’s storied past and their existence immortalizes a simpler time when the men of Dartmouth were allowed to remain boys, unburdened by the complexities of the past. But above all else, the murals must not be locked up in a dingy basement out of respect for the Hovey and Humphrey, true sons of the College. Since they remembered Dartmouth till the day they died, isn’t it time Dartmouth reciprocated that loyalty? However, if the last five years are any indication, loyalty means nothing to Phil Hanlon and his staff.

It is no coincidence that most of the people on the “study group” are part of the Native American community at Dartmouth. Apparently, the College believes that if art is offensive, then it must be shut down, regardless of how historic it may be. If these cultural Marxists ran the world,The Creation of Adam would be painted over for its lack of female representation, the Mona Lisa would be destroyed because its unrealistic smile is not representative of all women, and van Gogh’s The Starry Night would be burned for being offensive to the blind.

What about the murals do people find offensive? The fact that some of the Native Americans depicted were half-naked? The depiction of Wheelock as an old man who loved to drink? Or worst of all, that Eleazor Wheelock tried to spread Christianity to the heathens? The half-nude Indians would not be offensive if it wasn’t accurate, and it is an open secret that much of the Dartmouth community drinks copious amounts of alcohol. And is proselytization, education of the unenlightened in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the cornerstone of Western civilization, such a terrible thing?

This is not to say, however, that everything that led to the founding of Dartmouth College was necessary or even justified. In fact, I am sure that most people would agree that Rev. Wheelock was a flawed man, like every person born in the last two thousand years. When did we stop celebrating the greatness of imperfect men? Perhaps the most famous alumnus of the College, Daniel Webster, was one such man.

Sen. Webster is best known at the College for his defense of the Alma Mater in the Dartmouth College v. WoodwardSupreme Court case. In that case, he vociferously and successfully defended Dartmouth from being made into a public institution by the New Hampshire state government. He is also known for the Webster-Hayne debate, an argument that moved from a debate on tariffs to one on the very nature of the Union. Although a vocal abolitionist, Webster was integral to the infamous Compromise of 1850 and believed that legislation stopping the spread of slavery was unnecessary. While his role in the Compromise of 1850 makes him a controversial figure, the College, in its current form, would not exist without him.

In conclusion, Humphrey’s murals are an inaccurate, but humorous take on Dartmouth’s past, a past we should be proud of. The murals need to be opened to the public because we can’t move forward by ignoring the past. Yes, the Hovey Murals are bawdy and offensive, and yet there are those who love them.

  • Psymon Due

    So much of our celebrated Dartmouth culture has a decidedly unsavory aftertaste. But we need not spit out the drought, merely be aware of every ingredient. Hovey created the aforementioned murals with a very intentional point: The white christian males had came and colonised the indigenous “savages” with as much benevolence and as they could muster, while passing on the strongly held values of male dominance and alcoholistic fraternal power. An animal house from its genesis, female indigenous peoples were objectified, sexualised, and depicted as intellectually inferior. There was no particular malice in his work, just earnest expression of the cultural norms that prevailed then, and some would say, linger to the present.
    Another legendary alum and artist is beloved by generations of people all over the world: Theodore Geisel. Observe, if you will, his earliest oil painting, commissioned for the Dartmouth Club:Ted Geisel’s earliest and largest oil painting depicts Rome’s legendary episode at the city’s founding celebration (753 B.C.), during which Roman men abducted women from the neighboring Sabines to take as wives in order to populate their new metropolis. Once again the “civilized” Romans were celebrated in their abduction for the purpose of coupling with a “savage” female, shown in a state of undress. To be clear, it a depiction of multiple capital crimes. But it was considered to be a cheeky addition to the walls of the Dartmouth Club in 1930. No heroes here, and no villains. Just a bit of real history that we all should gave upon and ponder. As a fellow of this institution, I am sometimes proud, sometimes ashamed, but never in favor of suppressing the truth about the past. We don’t burn books. We are members of a civil society, or would aspire to be, so we take a sober look and own the past, while refusing to repeat the mistakes of those that came before us.