CSIH examines the College’s representations of its history

Last Friday, President Adam Falk announced in a campus-wide email that the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History (CSIH) had published its second and final report. With reference to multiple specific examples, the report recommends three broad principles for the consideration of representations of the College’s history.

Falk established the CSIH in the fall of 2015 after objections to the “Bloody Morning Scout” mural in the Black Room of the renovated Log. In a campus-wide email on Dec. 1, 2015, Falk announced the eight original adult members of the CSIH and asked the committee to focus on the Log mural as the “particular piece of concern” before developing broader “recommendations of a nature both general and specific.” The six student members were appointed to the CSIH via a self-nomination process in consultation with College Council and the Minority Coalition soon after the initial email.

On May 25, 2016, Falk announced in another campus-wide email that after its first semester, the CSIH recommended that the Log mural remain in place, but with “contextual information,” also in the Black Room. This fall, the committee reconvened to accomplish its broader task of developing recommendations on how to consider other historical representations on campus — the subject of the final report.

Professor of history Karen Merrill chaired the CSIH for all three semesters. In an email correspondence with the Record, she explained how the committee transitioned from its exclusive focus on the Log mural to tackling broader issues on campus. “The fall’s work was harder than the spring’s, because we had such a broad charge,” she said. “We had to spend a couple weeks simply trying to figure out how we should focus our energies over a relatively short period of time. I went to President Falk late in the fall semester and asked for an extension of time for our work, and that also allowed us, and the students in particular, to pull together a panel for Claiming Williams. As part of that panel, the students and a couple of us non-students on the committee did research and prepared materials on a number of different historical elements on campus.”

Matthew Hennessy ’17 served on the CSIH as a student representative and valued his time on the committee. “Not only did our work feel rooted in learning about a given space and its complexities, but there was a really positive atmosphere for constructive discourse that was grounded in mutual respect; it was an atmosphere where individuals were not afraid to voice their opinion, not afraid to be wrong and not afraid to debate perspectives in a thorough manner that was a testament to what a liberal arts education should enable,” Hennessy said.

Merrill emphasized the role of students on the committee. “I think having a critical mass of students on the committee helped give our work a kind of energy that isn’t always the case on college committees,” Merrill said. “What was great was that all six students stayed with the committee to the very end, and they were incredibly committed.”

The report itself focuses on three principles that the CSIH recommends the College consider when examining questions “about the historical elements to be found in decorations, memorials, monuments and buildings,” in the words of the report. “We recommend that the College attends to discussions about these objects with three principles in mind: that open inquiry should form the foundation of any discussion; that the College seek to understand the different constituencies attached to any given space on campus; and that we should approach this history in our built environment as more or less public space.”

Building off the educational mission of the College, the first principle emphasizes inquiry and discussion as the starting point. The report offers Thompson Memorial Chapel, which memorializes generations of College students who have served and died in battle, as an example in which questions must be asked to understand how community members engage with spaces today. The report asks: “Does its history and the ways it recalls an earlier time in the College’s history contribute to its feeling like an unwelcoming space to some in our community?”

To describe the second principle — that the constituencies of a given space be consulted when questions of historical representations arise — the report offers the Faculty House and the Herman Rosse painting, “The Carnival of Life,” in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance as two examples. The report describes how the Faculty House, which initially just served faculty members, is now used by multiple groups as the largest event venue at the College. For example, many students on campus during the summer eat dinner in the Faculty House. Given the various groups that now use the space, the report asks: “Do these changes mean that the décor of the Faculty House should be adjusted to reflect more contemporary constituencies?” Falk announced in his email that an ad-hoc committee will convene in the fall to consider décor changes in the Faculty House.

The report also references “The Carnival of Life” painting as a controversial art installation in the ’62 Center. In 2005, 43 students signed a petition to remove the painting, objecting to its portrayal of an African American figure and the woman in the painting. The petition argued that the painting’s “portrayal of African Americans is highly offensive [as] the only African American in the painting is a servile woman” (see “Students object to painting in ’62 Center,” Nov. 9, 2005). The CSIH suggests that the faculty members and students who use the ’62 Center daily be involved in any conversation regarding the Herman Rosse painting.

Finally, the report recommends that the College consider its built environment “as more or less public space.” As the primary example, the CSIH offers the Haystack Monument, which commemorates the Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1806, as a space that Christian tourists from around the world come to visit. However, as Falk noted in his email, the values of the Christian missionary organization are often perceived as connected to colonialism and racism. Given the complexities of having such a monument near student dormitories and spaces, the committee asks: “What are the ways that the College might provide more and different kinds of information about the Haystack Monument?”

At the end of the report, the CSIH acknowledges the lack of specific recommendations, and instead the emphasis on principles and related questions. “If we were to make specific recommendations of action, we ran the risk of contradicting the very principles we were setting out,” Merrill said. “I’d like to see a very sustained effort to explore the history and meaning of the Haystack Monument and to really be creative in thinking about how to do that. But that can’t be just one temporary committee’s recommendation: that kind of thing has to involve the engagement of at least some portion of the College community and the commitment of the College and some resources.”

Merrill believes an ongoing discussion among the community will be instrumental in this process.

“There has to be a real process for that; people have to take the time to talk about it, disagree with each other and listen to each other. We could have made specific recommendations of what we thought should happen with Haystack Monument, but it’s going to be a much better process if more people are brought into it,” Merrill said.

Rather than specific recommendations, the CSIH hopes that their three principles will “help ensure that the College render its past visible to the community while also creating an inclusive environment of learners both now and in the future,” as described in the report.

Merrill also hopes that the work of the CSIH will spark further inquiries into the history of the College. “I hope that both the College institutionally and the College as a community of people will become more engaged with its history generally and then will see in the built environment an opportunity to explore that history,” Merrill said. “I was really struck by how that history … and I should really say those histories, plural … always lead outward; they connect Williams always to what’s going on outside the College.”

“We kid ourselves all the time about being in the Purple Bubble, but this history tells us there isn’t a bubble! Williams has always been and will always be intimately tied to what’s going on in the rest of the world,” Merrill said.

At the end of his email, Falk thanked Merrill and the other members of the committee for their work. “This is an important and complicated endeavor. It has at its heart the very question of the community we aspire to be. We’ll never seek to erase Williams’ history, nor to rewrite it. But we must continue to evolve as a community, and that evolution has to include the voices and perspectives of all those whom we’ve invited here as full members.”

The report will remain on the office of the president’s website until the launch of a new website next fall to store the complete work of the CSIH, including its final report.

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