A wise choice on the murals
George Henry Southwell’s masterpiece cannot remain on view in the lower rotunda of the B.C. legislature, but it cannot be removed. Covering it seems the only sensible alternative.
Southwell’s series of murals shows images of our history that are considered demeaning to aboriginals — including bare-breasted women and men appearing before Chief Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie. They weren’t considered demeaning when they were painted in the 1930s, a gift of a former provincial secretary, but times change.
The government, anxious to mend fences with First Nations, decided last year to remove the murals, but there was a catch. They are painted directly on the walls, and removing them would cost $1 million or more with no guarantee that the murals would not be destroyed in the process.
The quick fix would have been simply to paint over the murals, but that would have been wrong. Painting over history — or in this case, a perception of history — has no place in a democracy. Besides, destruction of the artwork would surely have been offensive to some, just as its continued existence is offensive to others. The government was in a fix, with no viable alternatives.
Except for the one it chose, that is. Leaving the murals intact, but out of sight, will make it possible for more British Columbians to walk into the rotunda without feeling shame or anger. With the murals preserved, they will be in place for generations to come and the option of removing the cover will always be there. The murals have been photographed often enough, so it’s not as if they will disappear from our collective knowledge.
And who knows? Someday, it might seem wise to reveal once again an example of our government’s view of history in the 1930s. If that day comes, we can take the wraps off, thanks to the decision that the murals must not be destroyed.