Debate over labor mural continues, albeit quietly, at Maine State Museum

Posted Aug. 03, 2013, at 12:17 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — You could easily imagine the controversy over the Maine Labor History Mural was over after the series of paintings was unveiled in the atrium of the Maine State Museum about six months ago, after being hidden away by the governor for nearly two years.

But you would be wrong.

The debate over the mural — its contentious removal from the walls of the Department of Labor by Gov. Paul LePage, its period in hiding and its much more public place of display at the museum — continues, albeit quietly and politely, for the most part, in the pages of a guestbook maintained by the museum.

Museum director Bernard Fishman said the museum would like to keep the notes as a historical record of the controversy surrounding the mural.

“They could become a history of this mural,” he said. “The emotions that surrounded the mural made it, i think, obvious that it would be a good gesture to have these comment books available for people to express their opinions.”

The comments run the gamut, including supportive notes from people pleased to be able to view the piece to slights about the perceived political message behind the scenes of striking workers and child laborers.

Among the hundreds of messages left since February:

— “Nice art, but where is the hammer and sickle?”

— “Why only union where there is agriculture and aquaculture, maine’s true labor history[?] Seems the artist has political motivations!”

— “This is a perfect spot for this mural! Thank you for displaying it.”

— “In our eagerness to describe and show the plight of union workers, let us remember that not all, perhaps few, owners and managers were evil. They provided opportunities for work and advancement. Without them, what would workers have?!”

— “What a joke.”

— “I voted for the LePate to not cave in. Shame on him!”

— “As a citizen of Maine who is not pro-union, I agree with the removal of the mural from a government-run office. I do, however, appreciate that it is being displayed at the museum. Museums should have no political boundaries. What is art if no controversy?”

— “Marx and Engels would be proud.”

LePage removed the artwork from a lobby at the Department of Labor because he said it promoted an anti-business message. Several lawsuits were filed to restore the piece to its original location, but courts at each level ruled that the governor had a right to remove it.

In the beginning of 2013, a deal was struck that saw the Department of Labor lend the piece to the museum, which has displayed the mural in its atrium, or lobby, since January.

Judy Taylor, the Tremont artist who painted the 11-panel piece, said she’s thrilled not only by the continuous conversation, but by people leaving stories in the book about their own family’s labor histories. Several long notes include details from the children and grandchildren of mill workers or child laborers just like those depicted in the panels.

“I’ve had people visit my studio to tell me that they’d left comments in the book,” she said. “It’s very meaningful, people telling their own stories.”

Taylor said the museum’s idea to keep the notes for posterity is a testament to her intention when painting the mural — to promote conversation about the state’s labor history.

For his part, the governor is pleased the mural is in a more public location, but has long since moved on from mural controversy, according to his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett.

“This is not something we’re dwelling on,” Bennett said Thursday. “We’re focused on the policies, doing what we can to attract business and create jobs for the folks represented in that mural.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.