The Fine Line Between Art and History 

The debate continues over the murals at the old Ada County Courthouse: a representation of history or inappropriate?

Historically speaking, 68 years is a stumble in the innumerable steps of time. The year 1940 is near enough that it wouldn't take much effort to find someone who remembers what were considered socially acceptable attitudes toward race in America at that time. However it's far enough away that we aren't often confronted with those 68-year-old conceptions. Unless you happen to work in the old Ada County Courthouse.

The Art Deco-style building was built in 1938 and is home to 26 murals depicting life during the settlement of the West. The murals were commissioned by the federal government and painted by Southern California artist Ivan Bartlett, who carefully designed each piece to fit around the windows and doors of the spacious main lobby and up the center flight of stairs.

The artist used muted colors and exaggerated simplicity to depict settlers, Native Americans and their surroundings. Bartlett's murals provide the simple architecture with a unique feature that sets the courthouse apart from many government buildings. Recently, however, the murals have drawn some heavy criticism from the community.

In the main lobby, just behind the central staircase, are two murals that reflect an ugly side of Western settlement not shown in the rest of the work. The first illustrates two white settlers who appear to be arguing with a Native American man, and in the next panel, the settlers are preparing a hangman's noose while the Native American kneels between them. The image is shocking in its blatant depiction of such a violent act and deeply unsettling to view in life-sized scale.

From 2001 until last year, the courthouse remained uninhabited while the state debated whether to demolish the outdated building, so the issue of what to do with the offensive pieces was conveniently swept aside. But when it was decided that the Capitol building would be remodeled, the decision was also made to hold legislative sessions in the courthouse. Because the building shifted suddenly from being seen by few, to housing hundreds of employees and their visitors, a discussion began regarding what to do with the controversial murals. Some people felt they should be destroyed or covered by the American flag, as they had once been. Some suggested moving them to a historical museum, while others felt that because they depict an indisputable part of our history, they should be left in place as a reminder.

Surprisingly, many of the people who work in the building are indifferent to the presence of the murals. One woman who works on the lower floor of the building walks past the two panels every day. She says she doesn't even notice them any more. According to her, they were a little strange to see at first, but then she just got used to them.

Mary Sue Jones, who also works in the building, felt similarly. "I guess you could become obsessed and unhappy with it, but to what purpose? They portray a part of history, and we can't change history," she said.

Another woman, who requested she remain anonymous, said she felt extremely uncomfortable with the murals. She admitted to actually using the rear stairwell to reach her office in order to avoid walking past the images. In her opinion, "by having a mural like that in a public building, it implies that we're condoning it."

She mentioned that when the legislature first moved into the courthouse, the Idaho State Historical Society promised to work with tribal representatives to create a plaque containing text that offers an interpretation of the murals as a historical reference and not as a racist depiction.

"It's been months, though," she sighed, "and nothing's been put up." There is a plaque stating that an interpretive text will be in place soon, but the legislative offices have been in the courthouse since December.

Heather Rae, a member of the Cherokee tribe and a prominent filmmaker who lives here in Boise, feels that the murals are an important instrument for education and should not be covered or destroyed. When asked if she thought the murals should remain in the courthouse, Rae admitted, "There's a part of me that says yes, they should be; they're honest, but I know that's a pretty radical point of view."

Rae feels that by keeping the murals in a public place, we are not trying to hide something that was a part of recent history.

"People who could feel offended by those at this point in time, their parents and grandparents could have been a part of a society that shared this kind of thinking," she said.

Dallas Gudgell, a member of the Dakota tribe, said, "We as a two-legged species have a long history of genocide, and we have to deal with it." He agrees that the murals are important in that they shed light on the "attitudes of bigotry" in our history, but that they are "out of context in a public building." His concern stems from the indifference some feel toward the presence of the paintings.

"We don't want to desensitize ourselves to it by seeing it every day," Gudgell said. His suggestion is that they be placed in a museum so they do not lose their ability to evoke emotion in viewers.

There are some, though, who feel that the murals are entirely inappropriate as they are and need to be altered in order to show respect to Native Americans. Larry McNeil, an art professor at Boise State and renowned political artist, is a member of the Tlingit tribe. He feels that by leaving the murals as they are, we are perpetuating racist ideas. McNeil thinks the murals should stay in the courthouse but not in their current condition. "I would put forth the notion that the mural dehumanizes Native Americans because of their race, and for that reason alone, it should be altered. If I had my choice, I'd advocate to have some Native American art students and artists do an intervention with the mural, armed with paints, stencils and other transfer materials," he suggested. McNeil reasons that by doing this, Native Americans can reclaim this aspect of their history and present it to viewers as they feel it should be seen. Read McNeil's full statement on page 5 of this issue.

For now, all anyone who has the authority to decide what happens to the murals seems capable of doing is acknowledging the presence of the controversial pieces and promising to take action soon. Considering that the murals have been in place for 68 years and the only thing in place to prove the problem is being dealt with is a temporary sign assuring the public that an explanation is coming, the apologetic little plaque is starting to read more like an excuse than a promise.

The old Ada County Courthouse is located at 514 Jefferson St.

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