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Pamela W. Freeman
Office of Student Ethics and Anti-Harassment Programs

Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Display at IU's Woodburn Hall to inform students, public about Benton Murals

Feb. 15, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new educational display at Indiana University Bloomington will introduce students and campus visitors to Thomas Hart Benton's Indiana Murals and explain their importance to the state of Indiana and to the university.

The display, a project of the campus Commission on Multicultural Understanding, is being installed this week outside of Woodburn Hall Room 100, where two of the murals are mounted. It describes the history and meaning of the Benton Murals and addresses a controversy over one of the murals.

"The Benton Murals are one of the great treasures of Indiana University," said Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson. "They also remind us of the university's deep connections with the history and culture of the state. This educational display will help students and visitors to campus better understand the murals and their complex and important legacy."

Benton Mural informational banners are printed at IU PhotoGraphics by Ric Cradick (left) and Shanay Payne.

Print-Quality Photo

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) painted the 22 murals for the Indiana Hall of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Five years after the exposition closed, IU President Herman B Wells persuaded state officials to donate the murals for installation in the IU Auditorium, University Theatre (now IU Cinema) and Woodburn Hall. The murals portray the history of Indiana from the first inhabitants until the 1930s, with sections devoted to American Indians, fur trappers, pioneers, farmers and the development of industry, commerce, education and leisure.

The Woodburn Hall display includes a reproduction of all 22 murals along with three display panels: titled "Thomas Hart Benton's Indiana Murals," "The Indiana Murals on Campus" and "The Klan Controversy." The latter addresses the mural titled "Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press." Located inside Woodburn 100, the mural includes an image of a cross-burning by the Ku Klux Klan, the racist and anti-immigrant group that wielded extraordinary political power in Indiana in the 1920s.

Benton included the Klan as part of the state's history but put it in the background, behind images of a nurse caring for black and white children and the press, which exposed corruption in the Klan and brought about its downfall. Even so, the depiction of robed Klansmen can be disturbing.

"We understand that this image can evoke painful feelings for some students," said Pamela W. Freeman, associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Ethics and Anti-Harassment Programs. "Through much discussion and reflection over the years, our campus has consistently concluded that education is the best response to the controversy -- that students gain the most if they are well informed about the murals and why we value them."

To further that effort, the Commission on Multicultural Understanding (COMU) will sponsor a student symposium titled "What About the Benton Murals?" at 4 p.m. on March 7 in Woodburn 100. Panelists will include Nan Brewer, the IU Art Museum's Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper; James Madison, the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History; and Hilary Kahn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Global Change.

Benton Restoration

A restorationist from the IU Art Museum works on a mural in Woodburn Hall last summer.

Print-Quality Photo

"Murals and art have always been stepping stones for understanding cultural and historical moments, for social advocacy, and for encouraging conversations around challenging issues," said Kahn, who is also co-convenor for faculty and staff policies of COMU. "The Benton murals, the new educational display, and the student symposium will have similar outcomes; they will be pedagogical tools that will teach, engage, provoke conversation, and provide the information and imagery necessary for a deeper and more contextualized understanding of the Benton murals."

Along with information about the murals, the Woodburn Hall installation will include a reproduction/panorama of the entire mural series displayed around the atrium/rotunda outside the classroom. Students will pass through the display as they enter the classroom, so they will be able to engage the information as they choose. As a result, they will recognize the imagery of the murals and will know where to go for further information.

COMU received a $12,000 grant from the IU Bloomington Parents' Fund to create the educational display. Also contributing to the project have been the IU Art Museum; the University Architect's Office; IU Creative Services; IU PhotoGraphics; and the Building Services and Classroom Management departments.

In addition to informing students, the display will serve as a gateway for campus visitors and others who want to view the Benton Murals, which are at nearby locations in the heart of campus. Sixteen of the murals are in the Hall of Murals in the IU Auditorium; four are in the adjacent IU Cinema; and two are in Woodburn Hall, just across Showalter Fountain plaza from the Auditorium.

The murals in the Auditorium may be viewed during business hours. Call 812-856-2503 to make an appointment to view the murals in the Cinema. The murals in Woodburn Hall may be viewed when a class is not in session; call 812-855-2489 for information. The educational display may be seen any time Woodburn Hall is open.

Benton executed the massive mural project in only six months, drawing on his extensive knowledge of American history while seeing Indiana as symbolic of the country. He traveled more than 3,000 miles around the state, sketching people and places to prepare for the project.

After the Century of Progress Exposition closed, Indiana kept the murals in storage for several years before Gov. Clifford Townsend agreed to donate them to Indiana University. Construction plans for the IU Auditorium were adjusted to accommodate 16 murals, and Benton visited IU to help with installation.

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