Notre Dame to cover up Columbus murals, citing need to acknowledge darker side of story

    Photo: Robert Franklin, South Bend Tribune

    Notre Dame will cover up the Christopher Columbus murals that adorn the walls of the Main Building on the campus, according to a statement released by Father Jenkins Sunday.

    The murals have been the target of criticism in recent years. The images above come to us courtesy of photographer Robert Franklin and our news partners at the South Bend Tribune.

    In the statement, Jenkins speaks of the heavy volume of people that pass through the Main Building and says the murals are not well-suited for this area and "the context of their composition."

    He says that since the murals were painted in the 1800s, many people have come to see the murals as negative:

    In recent years, however, many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’s voyage for the indigenous peoples who inhabited this “new” world and at worst demeaning toward them.

    He calls Columbus' arrival to America a "catastrophe" and says it led to the "exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions."

    Jenkins goes on to say that the art's depiction of Columbus as a "beneficent explorer and friend" hides the darker side of the narrative, one that he says the community must acknowledge.

    The university will be soon begin to make woven covers for the murals, according to the statement.

    It aims to eventually make a permanent display of murals in a "campus setting" that will be determined at a future point in time.

    Read more below from the statement:

    The murals present us with several narratives not easily reconciled, and the tensions among them are especially perplexing for us because of Notre Dame’s distinctive history and Catholic mission. At the time they were painted, the murals were not intended to slight indigenous peoples, but to encourage another marginalized group. In the second half of the 19th century, Notre Dame’s Catholic population, largely immigrants or from families of recent immigrants, encountered significant anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant attitudes in American public life. At the same time, Columbus was hailed by Americans generally as an intrepid explorer, the “first American” and the “discoverer of the New World.” Gregori’s murals focused on the popular image of Columbus as an American hero, who was also an immigrant and a devout Catholic. The message to the Notre Dame community was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American.
    For the native peoples of this “new” land, however, Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe. Whatever else Columbus’s arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions. As Pope John Paul II said in a 1987 meeting with the Native Peoples of the Americas, “the encounter [between native and European cultures] was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your way of life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged.” The murals’ depiction of Columbus as beneficent explorer and friend of the native peoples hides from view the darker side of this story, a side we must acknowledge.
    Our goal in making this change is to respect both Gregori’s murals, understood in their historical context, and the reality and experience of Native Americans in the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival. We wish to preserve artistic works originally intended to celebrate immigrant Catholics who were marginalized at the time in society, but do so in a way that avoids unintentionally marginalizing others. The course described above, we believe, honors the University’s heritage, of which we are justly proud, and better respects the heritage of native peoples, who have known great adversity since the arrival of Europeans.

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