Reginald Marsh, U.S. Custom House Murals: Reframed and Reseen

By Lisa Leavitt



Despite these obstacles, Marsh completed the murals in December 1937. At a testimonial dinner dedicated to the achievement of the artist and his assistants, one speaker proclaimed, "No historian or artist of our time will be able to express the dynamic, throbbing, vibrant marine life of today as Mr. Marsh has done."[10] Almost sixty years later, these works are a glimpse into Marsh's age, an era replete with the propaganda common to American Scene mural projects. In Depression-era America, the government sought to fund public art projects portraying "dynamic, throbbing, vibrant" views of American life, despite the realities of a poor economy and despairing unemployment. Kennedy's protest reflected this intent to impart a strong, confident, imperialist vision of America. And, similar to Daniel Chester French's sculptural personification of a mighty America, this strength partially comes from a sense of dominion over one's land and its indigenous people.

In light of the Smithsonian's new federal art project, the National Museum of the American Indian, colonialist attitudes come again to the foreground, rather than remaining unspoken understandings of birthright to this land. In this new context, Marsh's immense frescoes of explorers like Amerigo Vespucci or Christopher Columbus initiate a bittersweet dialogue with the precious Native American objects, their new and unlikely neighbors. The ever-present symbols of patriotic America employed by Marsh -- Statue of Liberty, and American flags everywhere -- appear deflated juxtaposed to the rich culture of a people who once considered this land to be solely their own.

Entries in Marsh's own journals refer to the "indian red" [11] color used in certain murals; they demonstrate the extent to which superficial stereotypes are internalized into our verbal and visual language. Most interesting in this regard is the fresco opposite the opening of the museum's galleries. Entitled, "Coast Guard Cutter 'Calumet' Meeting the Washington," this work depicts a small coast guard boat, adorned with two American flags, intercepting a huge American ship. "Calumet" is a French name for the peace pipe common among Indians of eastern North America. [12] These tobacco pipes functioned as flags of truce and were ceremonially smoked to bind or renew alliances and friendships.

Marsh's appropriation of a sacred Indian ritual to describe a U.S. government boat whose function was to greet foreign vessels and protect our harbor bespeaks a certain disregard for Indian culture. In addition, Marsh alludes to the uncivilized violence of the American Indian by attaching two bloody tomahawks to the stern of the boat. This is not to say that Marsh had a specifically racist attitude, but more that these beliefs were ingrained in the ideology of a nation, striving for power and superiority, despite its earlier inhabitants.

The Smithsonian confronts the Western colonialization of Native American peoples in its progressive museum display. Comprised of three gallery sections, these 500 objects of the 1,000,000 in the collection are described in text panels in which the Western voice is not only brought out of anonymity, but is also actually vanquished and replaced by a Native American voice. In the first gallery space titled, Creation's Journey: Native American Identity and Belief; 165 art objects were chosen by Western curators according to their beauty, historical significance, rarity, and quality. The narratives on the text panels are provided by named anthropologists, archaeologists and art critics, rather than statements of apparent, absolute truths by anonymous curators. This self-conscious approach to museum display reminds viewers of the subjectivity involved in presenting. another culture's artifacts. The only voice unheard in these text panels are those of the Native American themselves.

However, in the next two galleries, Western curators surrender their voice of authority and, finally, the Native American controls the display and interpretation of their objects. The second gallery, All Roads Are Good: Native American Voices on Life and Culture, contains 300 objects selected by twenty-three Native Americans who each spent a week in the former National Museum of American Indian. Text panels, devoid of common Western classifications like dates, historical significance and artist names, bear instead first-person accounts about what these objects mean to those who selected them, both culturally and personally.

The third gallery, This Path We Travel: Celebrations of Contemporary Native American Creativity, brings the museum's traditional display of the past hurtling into the present by inviting contemporary Native American artists to create a collaborative installation, bespeaking their experience of life in America. This section represents the vital pulse of a people forging their own identities despite centuries of conflict with Euro-American beliefs and culture.

For the October 1994 opening, one installation, "Profane Intrusion," recreated a typical federal-subsidized H.U.D. Indian home, complete with all the American amenities of television, couch, refrigerator and swinging screen doors. The television shows American Indian versions of popular American commercials and sitcoms on NTV (Native TeleVision), a spin-off of the pop cultural icon, MTV. And displayed on the kitchen shelves, one finds not only Mazola corn oil and Crazy Horse beer, but a box of Calumet baking powder.

The turn of events in which a building once glorifying the prosperous trade of capitalist America has become a site for indigenous art and contemporary installations evoking parody of that commerce, shows the degree to which America has changed in this past century. From construction of the Custom House, to its transformation as a repository for American Indian artifacts; the evolving definition of federal art projects mirrors the ideological belief systems of the government that commissions them. In our multicultural age, the Smithsonian has made an effort to acknowledge the existence, diversity, and creativity of indigenous peoples. Though the employment of the "calumet" symbol by both Reginald Marsh and present-day Native Americans are vastly different in nature, perhaps the Smithsonian's present approach signals a peaceful "binding or renewing [of] alliances and friendships".[13]


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