‘History is about two sides. Like in a war’

By Juliana Adelman

Image: Maine Depart of Labor Mural (panels 7-9) by Judy Taylor

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.


7 Responses to “‘History is about two sides. Like in a war’”

  1. Felix Larkin Says:

    There are parallels here with the Irish government’s rejection of Harry Clarke’s famous Geneva Window in the 1930s. The theme of the window was the work of contemporary Irish authors, but its depiction of scenes from O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK and Liam O’Flaherty’s MR GILHOOLEY were deemed inappropriate.

  2. Brian Hanley Says:

    I like the ‘anonymous fax’ claiming that the mural was just like those in North Korea!
    More generally the controversy might suggest discomfort with the idea that class division, and god forbid, class struggle, is a central part of American history. There has been some discussion recently on the 100 anniversary of the Triangle Shirt factory fire in New York and it’s legacy. An iconic event and recognized as such, but the days of garment sweat shops are not over, and part of the story of the Triangle factory was that it was one of the few that had avoided being organised after a wave of strikes in 1909. Anyway, that’s a slightly different point!

  3. Brian Hanley Says:

    Re Triangle fire

  4. Brian Hanley Says:

    I like your friend’s mural by the way. I wouldn’t have thought it was too intimidating for business people to have to face on their way to a meeting. Unlike, say, a real picket line…

  5. Juliana Says:

    Thanks for the comments and for the link. The website on the Triangle fire is really nicely done. Perhaps, Brian, you’d volunteer to do a short piece on labor history websites? Or web resources for labor history…I’m sure there are at least 5 ones worth mentioning..


  6. Brian Hanley Says:

    Here’s another one on the Triangle fire anyway…


  7. Adrian Grant Says:

    A few web resources for labour history:

    Irish labour history: http://irishlabour.com/

    Irish Labour History Society: http://www.ilhsonline.org/index.html

    Virtual Labour History Library: http://www.iisg.nl/w3vl/

    Labour History Resources: http://labourhistory.net/

    SSLH archives and resources: http://www.sslh.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19&Itemid=33

    James Connolly internet archive: http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/index.htm

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