By Juliana Adelman
I hope you won’t think I am being too indulgent by highlighting a controversy over labor history that a friend of mine has found herself landed in. Judy Taylor painted a mural for the Department of Labor in the state of Maine. The paintings hang in the reception area of the department and depict the history of labor in the state. The paintings make explicit reference to a number of episodes in history, with a focus on laborers. The new governor of Maine, Paul LePage has decided to have the mural taken down for being one-sided. According to LePage, it is unfriendly to business and discourages cooperation: ‘History is about two sides. Like in a war’. You can see various press coverage of the controversy here, here and here. You can hear some radio coverage here. Apparently, business representatives have complained about being faced with the mural while sitting in reception.
The controversy struck me as interesting and also very American. We really are a nation who likes to forget the past. No matter that Judy’s mural depicts an artistic interpretation of real history, we don’t like how it makes us feel so please let’s take it down. When asked what it would be replaced with, LePage’s spokesperson said ‘something neutral’. Is there anything neutral???? Maybe he means something that has nothing to do with labor history at all. Contrary to what LePage was trying to suggest, he is not offering to present ‘two sides’ but to be selective about the story that is told. Judy’s mural seems to have been construed as biased by presenting labor history from the laborer’s perspective. LePage’s objections do not remove the fact that child labor and strikes happened. Anyway, I just wanted to point it out because it seems to me to raise a lot of issues of interest to historians. Plus (and I may be biased) I think the paintings are great.