Quips and Quotes: The Future of the Columbus Murals

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

Critics of our decision (to cover the Main Building’s Columbus murals) have suggested that it arose from a desire to protect overly sensitive, coddled students and faculty from images that might disturb them, or from a desire to suppress historical facts, or from some embarrassment about the Catholic faith. In fact, the opposite is true on all counts.” —University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., ’76, ’78M.A.

An exhibit about the early history of the University of Notre Dame, including images of the Christopher Columbus murals and information about their historical significance, will be created in a room on the second floor of the Main Building, Jenkins said on September 17 in his annual address to the faculty.

Italian artist Luigi Gregori’s 12 paintings have lined the second-floor corridors of the Main Building since the 1880s. Depicting Columbus’ journey to the new world, the murals have been criticized for stereotypical and inaccurate images of Native Americans. Students, faculty and alumni and have held periodic protests and issued calls for their removal.

Jenkins announced in January that they would be covered. That stirred criticism from those who considered the decision an example of political correctness that put undue blame on Columbus for the fate of Native Americans and diminished the Italian explorer’s importance to Catholic Americans in the late 19th century.

The proposed exhibit, among the recommendations (PDF) of a committee Jenkins convened to consider how to display the controversial images, will feature high-quality reproductions of the murals, as well as historical information about Gregori’s works. The expected location, Jenkins said, is the Main Building space that the admissions office will vacate in 2022.

The original murals will remain accessible to faculty who use them their teaching and research, as well as others with appropriate purposes. They will otherwise be covered in fabric featuring nature imagery of the region, as well as images characteristic of the Native people of northern Indiana. The committee also recommended that the University recognize in a public way the Native American communities that lived on the land that became Notre Dame and were integral to its founding.

Jenkins cited committee member Patrick Griffin, the Madden-Hennebry Family Professor of History, on the importance of studying all the intricacies of the issues surrounding the murals. Griffin said, “One of our jobs is to muddy the waters. We need to acknowledge the tangledness and complexity of our history, and each of its many different threads. Some things that we now regard as evil were once regarded as good. Both interpretations are part of the history of Notre Dame.”

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.