Muraling Myths

Muraling Myths: A Qualitative Research Prospectus

Fall 2010, based on this essay written during the previous term

Historical significance is not a property of the event itself. It is something that others ascribe to that event, development, or situation. (Counsell, 2004, p. 30)

Adams Murals in Zimmerman Library
Photographs by Steve Stockdale (2010)


In this study prospectus, I pose the question, “What do University of New Mexico students, faculty, and staff think about the Kenneth Adams murals in the west wing of the Zimmerman Library?” This question presupposes that the university community does think something about the murals. Commissioned in 1939 by James F. Zimmerman, then-president of the university, the murals have been criticized for their idealized depictions of cultural assimilation among Native American, Spanish/Mexican, and Anglo peoples. Critics such as Chris Wilson (2003) maintain that the artistic representations portrayed in the murals perpetuate inaccurate and outdated cultural stereotypes, reflecting the narrow historical perspective of the White privileged world view. Although no recent student protests have been directed toward the murals, during the 1970s and 1990s attempts were made to deface the fourth mural (Wilson, 2003). However, the current national political climate of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant demonstrations highlights an American predisposition toward the political subjugation, castigation, and exploitation of targeted minorities. The Adams murals reflect this unfortunate reality in its representations of White privilege over Mexican and Native Americans in Northern New Mexico. I contend that the UNM community of students, faculty, and staff needs to understand the historical and sociological myths memorialized in these murals. This study proposes to assess the degree to which this community does think about the murals, what they think, and what actions they feel are appropriate in response to the murals’ criticized false history, cultural and symbolic stereotypes of non-Whites as “the other, ” and the ongoing effects of these depictions on all races and cultures in Northern New Mexico.

The Kenneth Adams Murals in the Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico

I learned of the Kenneth Adams murals in the west wing of the Zimmerman Library on the main campus of the University of New Mexico (UNM) from a professor. Off-handedly, prior to beginning a discussion about a book by bell hooks, he informed our graduate class that on this very campus there existed an exhibition of public art, condoned and rationalized by the university administration that depicts White-privileged racism and male-dominated oppression. My initial reaction was to judge his comment as a biased overstatement. I recognized that, primed with his opinion, I was already prejudiced against the murals as something that, according to this professor’s matter-of-fact pronouncement, I should find offensive.

I made a visit to the library to see the murals for myself. To my surprise, I judged the murals in terms similar to those of the professor. I left with questions: Who did this? Why? What were they thinking? Finding the answers easily on the university’s website [Link no longer active], I wrote about the murals in a graded essay for the course. After the semester ended, I exchanged emails with the Dean of Libraries about the murals. I offered my criticisms, as well as the general recommendation that something should be done. The Dean’s initial respo]ses were promising, acknowledging that my analysis and suggestions were appropriate. However, after consulting with library staff, her conclusion, “which seems to reflect widespread thinking,” was that the murals were fine as is and warranted no “extra effort or attempt to define a stand or create additional context” (M.A. Bedard, personal communications, July 9 – August 31, 2010). She attached a note from an unnamed faculty representative who offered a more pointed reaction, “Will we start putting plaques on all other works of art, displays, exhibits and books to explain their historical context too?” [See SUBSEQUENT NOTES below.]

The purpose of this proposed study is to challenge the assertions by Dean Bedard and to deliberately address the question posed by the unnamed faculty representative. What does the UNM community think about the murals? To what degree are they aware of the murals’ history, purpose, and criticisms? To what degree does the community believe that the murals do indeed deserve special scrutiny and “historical context’?

The merits of this proposed study can be assessed by inquiring into three domains of research that bear directly on the issues pertinent to the Adams murals: 1) the employment of public art as a means to achieve educational, political, and cultural objectives; 2) the historical realities of the peoples depicted in the murals; and 3) the contemporary realities of these peoples seen through the critical lenses of multiple cultural perspectives.

Public Art to Achieve Specific Objectives

With regard to controversial public art, Lankford and Pankratz (1992) highlight two central questions that must be considered — what is the political environment and social context in which the art was produced, and what was the intention of the artist? For the Adams murals, these questions are answered directly by the university on its website. Then-president of the university James F. Zimmerman commissioned the four murals in 1939 with the purpose to depict “the Indian, the Spanish, and the Anglo” and the “union of all three in the life of the Southwest” (University of New Mexico Libraries, 2009). The same webpage quotes from a 1939 article in the student newspaper The Lobo, that the murals “will be purely architectural decoration” and goes on to describe the four murals. The article declares that the fourth mural “represents the dawn of a new day, all the contributions combining for better living … reflecting the spirit of democracy … three races as socially equal” (University of New Mexico Libraries, 2009). Adams’ intention was to comply with the two-fold commission articulated by Zimmerman ¬— depict the history of the past union, and the dawn of a socially-equal future.

mural-1 Native Indians
Kenneth Adams Mural 1 – “Indians”
Kenneth Adams Mural 2 – “Mexicans”
Kenneth Adams Mural 3 – “Anglos”
Kenneth Adams Mural 4 – “Assimilation”

Sociological and cultural aspirations for public art are not uncommon. In South Africa, before and immediately after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, officially-sanctioned wall art covered entire blocks of buildings in cities across the country (Marschall, 2008). Used for both political and commercial purposes, the wall art projected ideals and possibilities for a post-apartheid democratic nation. As Marschall notes, however, after almost two decades those idealistic images depicting hopeful national aspirations have in most cases become crumbling markers of progress stymied, still awaiting social, economic, and political union.

Thus, a work of art created with historical motives can be evaluated in two directions — how accurately does the work depict the past and are its aspirations for the future realized?

Historical Accuracy

There can be no dispute that Adams’ flat paint glosses over the historical realities of “tricultural New Mexico” (Wilson, 2003) to an astonishing, if not irresponsible, degree. The adage that history is written by the victors has no more convincing witness than the White telling of the history of the southwestern U.S. Laura E. Gómez (2007) provides a detailed account of how White Anglos from the U.S. exploited historical animosities and rivalries between Indian and Mexican descendants for their own interests, especially after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. By treaty, former Mexican settlers in territories ceded to the U.S. by Mexico were afforded citizenship in the new territory, including voting rights, which at the time were restricted to white males. Therefore Mexicans had a legal claim to “whiteness,” as opposed to the native Indians who were expressly defined as “not white,” ineligible for citizenship (Gómez, 2007). Socially, however, a huge divide separated the minority Whites who emigrated from the U.S. from the long-established “white” Mexican majority. This divide comprehended differences of language, religion, cultural traditions, and work ethic, which led to White stereotyping and denigration of Mexicans. For these and other reasons, Mexicans were more accurately considered as “off-white” rather than white (Gómez, 2007). Thus was established a racial hierarchy topped by Whites, bottomed by Indians, with Mexicans in between. Gómez documents the accepted practice of Indians serving as slaves, often to Mexican owners, through the early 20th century. She explains that, even though most of the western lands were ceded by Mexico at the same time, New Mexico and Arizona were not admitted to the Union until sixty-two years after California’s admission in 1850. [Watch an illustration.] This lifetime of a delay was due to the American public’s distrust of and skepticism toward Mexicans and Indians in terms of their intellect, temperament, and overall worthiness as franchised citizens (Gómez, 2007).

After admission to statehood, Mexicans in New Mexico and Arizona joined other Southwest Mexican Americans as Americans and began to face more overt and explicit discrimination. Years before the phrase “civil rights” became associated with the struggle of black Americans for equal legal protections, Mexican Americans went to the courts to establish important precedents to remedy segregationist and discriminatory practices related to voting, housing, marriage, language, and education (Ruiz, 2006).

Native Americans suffered even more severe treatment, sanctioned by official U.S. Government policy. In addition to well-documented disputes over treaties, land rights, and tribal sovereignty, one of the signature denigrations of Native Americans was the Indian boarding school program. Exhibiting no shame, the rationale behind shipping Indian children off to distant boarding schools was stated as, “Kill the Indian, save the man” (King, 2008).

None of these historical and unjust realities is evident in the Adams murals. Instead, the White-dictated assimilation of the cultures is depicted in the fourth mural. Ostensibly projecting an idealized future, the blond, blue-eyed White mediates between Mexican and Indian, shown in the “business casual” attire of the White. The inevitability of such forced assimilation is poignantly reflected in the comments of a Native American grandmother in 1950, “Some day we’re all going to be like white people” (Horse, 2005).

The tricultural myth is silent regarding the unfairness of the inherent tensions that Native Americans and Mexican Americans must continually reconcile, for which White Americans have no counterpart. Whites do not face the relentless pressures of maintaining a cultural identity with distinctive traditions, while at the same time adapting to the more mainstream ways dictated by a dominating socio-economic-political culture. For Native Americans, especially those residing on reservations and pueblo lands, this dilemma is acute. Their challenges have been described as having to reconcile five different and sometimes conflicting aspects of awareness: 1) ethnic nomenclature, or the labels that are applied to groups of “the other”; 2) racial attitudes by the dominant Whites about “the other”; 3) the legal and political status of minority groups such as Native Americans; 4) the inevitability of cultural change; and 5) issues related to “personal sensibility” — native language, genealogy, world view, self-concept, and tribal relations (Horse, 2005).

The White appropriation of marketable Mexican American and Native American cultural attributes was the basis of the thriving tourism industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The tricultural myth, including the peaceful and settled Indian and industrious “Spanish” (not “Mexican”), was a cornerstone of the tourism strategy to quell fears about the “Spanish” majority in New Mexico, as well as a lingering distrust of Indians (Gómez, 2007; Wilson, 2003).

Realization of Public Art Aspirations

These inconvenient historical realities continue to have consequences in the contemporary realities of Mexican Americans and Native Americans. Centuries-old grievances lie at the root of acts of political vandalism, such as that involving the monument erected to commemorate the area’s first Spanish colonial governor, Don Juan de Oñate, who arrived in 1598. In advance of planned celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Spanish colonization, the right foot of the memorialized bronze figure was sawed off, mimicking the heinous practice commonly ordered against dissidents under Oñate. Communications to local newspapers from a group called The Friends of Acoma, a nearby pueblo, claimed responsibility (Trujillo, 2009). In Santa Fe, prior to the city’s largest annual market, Indian Market, vandals have covered the white Cross of the Martyrs, dedicated to Spanish priests killed during the pueblo uprising of 1680, with red paint (Grammer, 2010). The murals themselves have been targeted for protest, as Wilson (2003) notes that “the final panel was defaced with splattered paint twice in the early 1970s, and students repeatedly protested for their removal through the early 1990s” (p. 29). These events serve as data points that the aspirations for tricultural assimilation have not been fully realized.

Historical Significance

Historian Christine Counsell (2004) has proposed the “Five R’s’” for considering whether an event merits consideration as historical significant: it must be Remarkable (in that it has been remarked upon since its occurrence); Remembered; Resonant (in that it connects people to a specific memory or experience); Results (it had consequences); and it Reveals something about other events in the past. By this standard, it would seem that not only the myth of tricultural “union” qualifies, but the mural itself qualifies as significant in its depiction of the myth. With respect to contemporary consequences for Mexican Americans, Gómez (2007) warns that “by continuing to uncritically reproduce the standard account of race in the United States, we may inadvertently reinforce white supremacy” (p. 143). Native Americans continue to struggle with the dilemma of resisting the “essentializing tendencies” that result in simplistic stereotypes, while maintaining a cultural identity that embraces those same tendencies (Brayboy, 2000).

Therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that, looking to the past, the Adams murals do contribute to the myth of tricultural assimilation and depict a false history. Looking to the future, they reveal the failure of seven decades of White articulated aspirations based on denial, ignorance, and privilege. The question becomes, “now what?”


Tradition and Philosophy

This prospectus reflects the influences of three world views or philosophical paradigms as described by Creswell (2007). Social constructivism recognizes the inevitable multiple realities that arise from different traditions, cultures, and perspectives. The Adams murals clearly reflect only the reality of White Americans of privilege and power. The advocacy/participatory paradigm is applicable because the proposed study does advocate for action. I am motivated by a desire to not only gauge awareness, but to raise awareness levels such that others perceive the need to “do something” beyond silently condone the murals. The objectives of this study are also tempered by pragmatism in that it is reasonable to acknowledge both the existence of the murals and their significance as a fixture to the library and the university. There is no question that the murals will remain. There is a question as to what reasonable alternatives to the status quo may exist that reflect the informed sensibilities of the UNM community.

Creswell (2007) defines the over-arching theories that inform this inquiry. “Critical theory perspectives are concerned with empowering human beings to transcend the constraints placed on them by race, class, and gender” (p. 27). The murals depict each of these constraints while purporting to deny them. To my mind, a necessary step toward empowering those affected by these constraints has yet to occur, and that is to formally acknowledge complex and unattractive truths underlying historical myths. Creswell also explains that critical race theory focuses on “race and how racism is deeply embedded within the framework of American society” (p. 28). While some may argue that the murals do not depict different races but rather ethnicities, or cultures, or traditions, two arguments justify viewing the murals from a critical racial perspective — the university’s webpage refers to “the three racial groups” (University of New Mexico Libraries, 2009), while the extensive evidence revealing a racial hierarchy (Gómez, 2007) clearly meets the most general definition of racism, “the belief in racial superiority” embedded in “the structures of society which create racial inequalities in social and political institutions” (Neville, Lilly, Duran, Lee, & Browne, 2000). Such inequalities are inevitable outcomes of a society’s construction of “race” as a defining discriminator between “them” and “us.”

A third theory that informs this research is known as color-blind theory, which refers to the post-civil rights era belief that “ideological and structural racism does not exist” (Neville et al., 2000). Such beliefs result in a tendency to not see racism when it does exist, hence less sensitivity to objections about certain examples or manifestations of racial offense. I suggest that color-blindness is partially responsible for the status quo and reluctance to engage in critical dialogue about the murals.

Methods for Data Collection

Two populations are targeted in the proposed study, UNM students (Group A) and UNM faculty/staff (Group B). Purposive sampling will be used for both populations. The Group A samples will consist of eight intact university classes whose professors have agreed to participate in the study. Undergraduate classes in the language arts and social studies departments will be solicited to match these criteria: a) a minimum of 20 enrolled students; b) gender imbalance of no more than 60/40; and c) the instructor is confident that the study survey can be unobtrusively introduced within the scope of the class. The Group B sample will be recruited from faculty and staff volunteers at UNM. Potential respondents will be solicited through written and word-of-mouth communications. Up to 60 respondents will be selected to participate in Group B. Institutional Review Board approval will be required due to the reliance on human subjects.

Data collection will consist of two phases for each group. The first phase will be to administer a survey to the Group A intact classes and the Group B individuals. The surveys will be administered to the Group A classes by the instructors, who will read a prepared script, then provide the students with a consent form and the survey forms. Group B participants will receive a packet at their work place that includes an instruction sheet, consent form, survey form, and a postage-paid addressed envelope in which to return the completed materials.

The survey will include the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS). The CoBRAS assessment provides a reliable measurement of racial color-blindness (Neville et al., 2000). The 20-item instrument employs a 6-point Likert scale for expressing agreement or disagreement with statement such as: White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin. Everyone who works hard, no matter what race they are, has an equal chance to become rich. Race plays an important role in who gets sent to prison. The instrument was initially tested and validated in a series of 5 studies involving 760 university students (Neville et al., 2000). Appended to the CoBRAS form, using the same 6-point Likert scoring scale, will be 4 statements such as: I am familiar with the murals in the west wing of the Zimmerman Library. I am aware of objections to the murals. I have an opinion about the appropriateness of the murals. Although I may not agree with them, I understand why some objections have been voiced. At the conclusion of the survey, space will be provided for the participant to volunteer for the second phase of the study.

The second phase of data collection for the study will consist of a series of group interviews consisting of up to 4 groups of 8 volunteers from Group A, and 2 groups of 6 faculty/staff volunteers from Group B. Interviews will be scheduled to last 60-90 minutes. The group interviews will be facilitated by the evaluator, who will provide each group with an explanation of the objectives for the interview, slides of the four murals, a summary of some of the objections to the murals, and then facilitate an open-ended discussion with participants concerning their feelings and attitudes about the murals. Tailored from questions suggested for classroom discussions about public art (Argiro, 2004), questions such as these could be asked to stimulate discussion: If the characters in the murals emerged today, what stories might they tell about their lived experiences? Discuss what each of the three ‘races’ might object to, or embrace, in each of the murals. If a similar work were to be commissioned today, what would you suggest to President Schmidly to include, or avoid?

The researcher will be assisted by a colleague whose role is to observe, take notes, and prompt the facilitator as necessary. The group will be recorded using an audio recorder.

Each survey will be scored and analyzed to compute the CoBRAS color-blind score and note the responses to the 4 questions regarding awareness of the mural. Results will be entered into an Excel spreadsheet and summed by sample, Group, and total. Means and standard deviations will be calculated. CoBRAS scores will be compared with responses to the 4 additional questions to look for any correlations between degree of color-blindness and awareness of sensitivity about the murals. Detailed notes from the group interviews will be transcribed and analyzed. Items of interest will be coded and categories will be recognized as they emerge from the analysis. Observations regarding the interpersonal dynamics of the participants, revealing comments, and tabulated frequency results from coded items will be captured. From all these data, a thorough narrative report will be prepared and delivered to the university administration.


It is hoped and anticipated that this study will raise awareness about the Kenneth Adams beyond those who participate in the survey and interviews. I hope to capture a representative sample of the UNM community’s sentiments about not only the murals as art, but also their views about the historical and sociological issues inherent in the murals. Through the interviews, I expect to gain insight into the effects of a rational and informative conversation about the murals on those who previously expressed little awareness or sensitivity about them. I believe that a significant number of these participants will agree that action is called for, beginning with a dialogue with the university administration. I hope that such a dialogue would become an ongoing activity beyond the limited term of the study, bringing much-needed and long-awaited focus on the lived realities of the three depicted peoples, rather than the muralized myths perpetuated by White privilege.


Argiro, C. (2004). Teaching with public art. Art Education, July. 25-32.

Brayboy, B.M. (2000). The Indian and the researcher. Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(4), 415-426.

Counsell, C. (2004). Looking through a Josephine-Butler-shaped window: focusing pupils’ thinking on historical significance. Teaching History, 114, 30-36.

Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Gómez, L.E. (2007). Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York and London: New York University Press.

Grammer, G. (2010, August 23). Vandals hit Cross of the Martyrs for third year in a row. The Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved from–message-in-red

Horse, P. G. (2005). Native American Identity. New Directions for Student Services, 109, 61-68.

King, C.R. (2008). Teaching intolerance: Anti-Indian imagery, racial politics, and (anti)racist pedagogy. Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies, 30(5), 420-436. doi: 10.1080/10714410802426574

Lankford, E.L., & Pankratz, D.B. (1992). Justifying controversial art in arts education. Design for Arts in Education, 93(6), 17-25.

Marschall, S. (2008). Transforming symbolic identity: Wall art and the South African city. African Arts, 41(2), 12-23.

Neville, H. A., Lilly, R. L., Duran, G., Lee, R. M., & Browne, L. (2000). Construction and initial validation of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS). Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47, 59-70.

Noley, G.B. (2008). Writing American Indian history. American Educational History Journal, 35(1/2), 95-101.

Ruiz, V.L. (2006). Nuestra América: Latino history as United States history. Journal of American History, 93(3), 655-672.

Steinfeldt, J.A., & Wong, Y.J. (2010). Multicultural training on American Indian issues: Testing the effectiveness of an intervention to change attitudes toward Native-themed mascots. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(2), 110-115.

Trujillo, M.L. (2009). Remembering and Disremembering. In Land of Disenchantment: Latina/o Identities and Transformations in Northern New Mexico (pp. 27-56). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

University of New Mexico Libraries. (2009). Murals by Kenneth Adams in Zimmerman Library. Retrieved from

Wilson, C. (2003). Ethnic/Sexual Personas in Tricultural New Mexico. In Rothman, H. (Ed.), The Culture of Tourism, the Tourism of Culture: Selling the past to the present in the American Southwest (pp. 12-37). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.



  1. A version of the material found on the UNM website regarding the murals is posted on a piece of paper next to the first mural in the Zimmerman Library. This was overlooked when I prepared the prospectus and should have been mentioned. If anything, to my mind it does more harm than good by explicitly stating the underlying myth.
  2. In an email dated December 15, 2010, Dr. Bedard objected to my summarized characterization of the views that she had expressed about the murals during the previous July and August. After carefully reviewing that email exchange, I maintain that my wording in this prospectus is appropriate.