Last Sunday, the student contingent of the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History led a forum concerning the contentious mural at the Log.
Students, faculty and staff members have raised concerns over its depiction of Mohawk Chief Hendrick, Commander Ephraim Williams and their various aides studying battle plans before the Battle of Lake George on Sept. 8, 1755.
Earlier in the year, calls for the mural’s removal, combined with fervent testimonies in its defense, prompted President Adam Falk’s December campus-wide email, covering the mural and tasking the committee with examining its value to the College community [“New Committee will address historical representations,” Dec. 9, 2015].
The student members of the committee – Jake Bingaman ’19, Elizabeth Poulos ’19, Ariana Romeo ’19, Tom Riley ’18, Alex Jen ’19 and Matthew Hennessy ’17 – each told stories about different aspects of the mural before inviting the audience to share its views.
Bingaman, a SEAL Team 8 veteran, spoke to the military and strategic aspects of the scene depicted. With a military background focused on developing ties with SEAL counterparts in various African countries and the United States’ NATO allies, his impression of the mural was one of “camaraderie and trust” between the two allied forces.
From the depiction, it is unclear who is in command, but to Bingaman, the image is primarily an image of war, of the strategy before the chaos of battle. Bingaman’s concerns were encapsulated in his pivotal comment: “War is often immoral, often unfair. Will we cover World War II memorials, Vietnam, Operation Iraqi Freedom? Who decides what will be censored?”
Poulos raised questions related to the heroic portrayal of Williams in College mythology. Ephraim Williams’ will designated a sum to the establishment of a college in western Massachusetts, which would be the second institution of higher learning in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time, the first being Harvard. She asserted the need to maintain a holistic view of the founder as a soldier as well as a champion of education.
Romeo, speaking as one of the five self-reported Native American students on campus, pointed out historical inaccuracies in the Mohawks’ attire, but surmised that the problematic element of the mural is not inauthenticity in the composition of the piece itself but rather the lack of context given to the historical events depicted. Romeo stated that the mural “whitewashes the broader history of the era” as a naïve “snapshot of an instance that might have happened,” but idealizes and simplifies the bloody, tumultuous history of Native American-colonist relations.
In order to understand the mural and to evaluate its appropriateness, the committee deemed it necessary to understand the space in which it resides.
Riley gave a brief history of the Log, which was originally established in the 1940s as an alumni house for those not part of fraternities. In the 1980s, it was converted into a student-run bar with JAs serving as bartenders. The newly renovated space reflects this rich, varied history, furnished with original tables with previous students’ names carved in the weathered wood. “The Log, in a lot of ways, is trying to create the shared identity that is Williams,” Riley said.
Jen examined the purpose of the mural and the motivation of its artist, Stanley Rowland, a local who grew up on Church Street in North Adams. Rowland, an artist known for his depictions of historical scenes, was commissioned by the College to produce the image in 1942. Jen characterized the mural as “naïve and ahistorical,” a romantic depiction of the interaction between Williams and Chief Hendrick. “The mural was exactly what it needed to be: an immediately accessible piece of history in a place of communal gathering,” Jen said. “It depicts America how we once chose to see it.”
Hennessy concluded the student remarks with an explanation as to why the committee chose to cover the mural during its deliberation process. He rejected concerns, largely from alumni, that the recommendations of the committee were predetermined with the “premature” covering of the mural. “We all needed to take a step back, take a deep breath, collect ourselves to begin answering the biggest questions at hand,” Hennessy said.
Hennessy also explained the decision to finally uncover the mural last week. Due to the plywood boards covering the mural, many students never had the chance to see it, and this lack of access to the piece led to its memorialization and mysterious character.
Following the student remarks, the committee invited members of the audience to voice comments and criticisms about the mural. The many students, faculty and staff who spoke unanimously agreed that the mural should remain in the Log, albeit with accompanying material to contextualize the moment in history. The consensus was that removing the mural would also remove the need to address the many issues it raises, both historical and current.
Approximately 75 people attended this panel in Goodrich Hall.