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University of Minnesota-Crookston not sure what to do with 'problematic' 80-year-old murals

The vice chancellor admits they include images that are "problematic."

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CROOKSTON, Minn. — "There're stereotypical images that just are not consistent with our values," said University of Minnesota-Crookston Vice Chancellor John Hoffman as he stood in the front of Kiehle Auditorium Thursday, Dec. 9.

He was referring to the Socha Murals at the front of the auditorium. There are six different murals, and the two largest have come under scrutiny for their content. One shows Vikings arriving in Minnesota with weapons, the other depicts the signing of a land treaty with Native Americans.

"The portrayal in the mural is romanticized and seems to rewrite history as a moment to be proud of instead of one that we have to think about more critically," Hoffman said.

John Martin Socha painted the murals in 1942 on behalf of the UMC class of 1932. He was a high school art teacher who graduated from the University of Minnesota's main campus.

"We're not going to destroy the murals; they are important elements of history, but they also are inaccurate in terms of their portrayal and they draw upon stereotyped images," Hoffman said.

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The murals became the focus of the college and community in 2016 as the theater is also used by the community for a wide range of performances. This past spring a committee of faculty, students, alumni and local tribes came together to figure out what to do with the two big murals.

That led to a circle discussion on campus Thursday night.

About half of the room supported using the murals for educational purposes. Some wanted them torn down. Others felt they should stay as-is.

The university says it would be too expensive to permanently remove the murals. Covering them with retractable panels is one idea being considered.

"We could open it up for educational sessions where we would talk about the danger of rewriting history, romanticizing history," Hoffman said. "But we could also then close the panels for concerts, for plays, for other events at the campus."

Campus leaders hope to have a final solution early in the spring semester.

Matt Henson is an Emmy award-winning reporter/photographer/editor for WDAY. Prior to joining WDAY in 2019, Matt was the main anchor at WDAZ in Grand Forks for four years. He was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended college at Lyndon State College in northern Vermont, where he was recognized twice nationally, including first place, by the National Academy for Arts and Science for television production. Matt enjoys being a voice for the little guy. He focuses on crimes and courts and investigative stories. Just as often, he shares tear-jerking stories and stories of accomplishment. Matt enjoys traveling to small towns across North Dakota and Minnesota to share their stories. He can be reached at mhenson@wday.com and at 610-639-9215. When he's not at work (rare) Matt resides in Moorhead and enjoys spending time with his daughter, golfing and attending Bison and Sioux games.
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