To Create Public Art
In 1934, during the era of the New Deal, the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the Treasury Department, in a non-relief effort, established a “48 States” art competition to commission artists to create public art in post offices. All of these visual stories, created as a result of the national contest, were the work of a vast majority of non-Native artists whose themes were also influenced by the desires of local post office communities. Many of the artists were unfamiliar with the region connected to the post office they were assigned, and most, unless they were Native artists themselves, were unfamiliar with American Indian culture. While some mural images succeeded in capturing the importance of Native peoples in the American historic tableau as a result of an increased national consciousness, others were based on rumor, legend, and stereotype resulting in dramatic and sometimes bizarre inaccuracy. These murals in post offices across the United States are telling and re-telling an American Indian story to the general public every day.
A History and Culture Research group at the National Museum of the American Indian examined the 1,630 black and white images of these murals and sculptures, which were provided exclusively to the NMAI on archived discs by the United States Postal Service. The NMAI team created notebook printouts of all of these murals in black and white, which can now be available to researchers. The review effort showed that 400 murals contained images of American Indians. A very small number of the 400 have been photographed in color. Only 24 were painted by American Indian artists.
The long-range goal of this project titled Indians at the Post Office: Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals, is to critique, from a contemporary vantage point, all 400 of these murals. The purpose is to address both the virtues and the inaccuracies in these historic depictions, and to launch and continue to populate a web-based virtual exhibition on the Smithsonian National Postal Museum website. We begin this launch with 27 of these murals and look ahead to a further project collaboration with the documentation of the other 370, to be periodically premiered on the NPM website. Our focus is to have all of the future mural research essays written by American Indians, particularly from the areas and cultures depicted. Collaboration with tribal and state college faculties and students from the various regions is contemplated in order to address the over-300 murals left to be interpreted and commented upon.
In an on-going effort to challenge stereotyping, and correct the current nature of education concerning American Indians, the NMAI mission devotes the required scholarship to inform and assess these permanent visual statements on American history.
Senior Researcher Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
and Indians at the Post Office Project Leader