The University of Rhode Island has been called to action.
We understand the affinity that many of our alumni and community members have to the murals displayed in the URI Memorial Union. We appreciate the emotional connection many have to the past as depicted in the murals showing campus life in the 1950s.
In our enthusiasm to reflect our diverse community as it is today, we didn’t invite voices from other important eras to share their perspectives.
We hear you.
We have heard the voices of our alumni over the past several days, those whose connection to these images and that time are filled with fond memories of their years at URI — depicting commencement, a South County beach scene, a class reunion, servicemen and women returning to Kingston, and students piled into a jalopy wearing letter sweaters.
We have also been listening, as we should, to the voices of our students today, in particular our students of color and other minorities for whom these murals show what many experience all too frequently–being left out of the picture or conversation. These murals are a snapshot in time and no longer represent our diverse community. We appreciate the artist, Dr. Arthur Sherman, his love of URI and his ability to capture that time period. We honor his talents, service and dedication to URI and our nation.
As we move forward, we want to assure our students and our alumni that we will work together to find a way to acknowledge our past and point toward our future. We are a community that values equity and diversity, and we will work to ensure that our students, alumni and community members of all backgrounds feel welcome and included.
In no way was the decision to change the images in the space connected to any disregard for our veterans. Our Office of Veterans Affairs and Military Programs and our Student Veteran Organization see this artwork as a depiction of a specific period of time and not reflective of campus and military culture today.
The University’s growth in recent years led to plans for renovation of the Memorial Union. During this process, we explored options for preservation of the murals, including removal of the plaster walls on which the murals are directly painted. The construction method of the wall – plaster and lathe – does not permit removal without damage to the murals and to the walls. Two entire walls in the building would need to be removed.
The University has enlisted the assistance of Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History Ronald Onorato to share his expertise with regard to mural preservation, with the goal of incorporating Dr. Sherman’s work. As Professor Onorato notes: Most importantly, we should strive, as an educational institution not toward removing history but moving toward contextualizing the mural to use the original mural as a way to open discussions about our University culture in the 1950’s and how it differs from who we are now.
The University will announce its plans to review, gather, and reflect on what has been raised by the end of September.
In all of our statements, we have discussed the importance of Dr. Sherman, his service to the country and to the University and what these murals represent, a specific period of time. We have spoken at length with Dr. Sherman and his family and understand their reactions to these changes.
When we complete the renovations, we will invite the Sherman family to the ceremonies to thank them for their contributions to the University and celebrate what we hope will be a journey together to honor the past and walk forward into the future.