Mansplaining Mural Draws Derision at Johns Hopkins

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Recent news about renovations to Shriver Hall at The Johns Hopkins University campus has brought attention to one of the building’s more controversial features: the murals in the first-floor lobby.

Students and faculty aren’t exactly fond of one work, in particular, and have questioned whether it should remain.

The mural shows a man standing behind a young woman who is reading a book while seated on a park bench. He’s reaching over her shoulder and pointing to the book as if he’s showing her a sentence.

Clarissa Martin, who is a rising senior at Hopkins, said that the mural in question strikes her as strange.

“The first thing that came to mind for me was, ‘Why is this man showing a woman how to read a book?'” she said.

She added that she was struck by just how many male figures are depicted in the surrounding vignettes of medical scenes compared to how few female figures are present.

When asked if she was familiar with the murals one professor, who preferred to go unnamed, proclaimed, “I know them, and I can’t stand them!” She described them as sexist.

The murals, if part of Hopkins’ philanthropic history, are not exactly the most flattering depiction of campus life. Shriver Hall, which houses the largest auditorium on the Homewood campus, is named after Alfred Jenkins Shriver, who graduated from Hopkins in 1891.

When Shriver died in 1939, his will stipulated that most of the funds from his estate be used to build a new lecture hall on campus. He also provided a list of conditions that had to be met before Hopkins could receive his money.

One of them was the creation of a series of murals showing campus life and other subjects. He had very specific topics, ranging from “Class of 1891” and “Original Faculty of Philosophy” to “Philanthropists of Baltimore” and “Famous Beauties of Baltimore.”

Famous Beauties of Baltimore

The university started building Shriver Hall in 1952 and opened it in 1954. In keeping with Shriver’s wishes, Hopkins commissioned artist Leon Kroll to paint the murals that Shriver wanted.  Registrar Irene Davis tracked down descriptions of period clothing and other details to help the artist. After 7,000 hours of painting, the murals were complete.

In addition to the “mansplaining” scene, entitled “School of Education,” other vignettes have drawn attention over the years. The “Famous Beauties of Baltimore” scene on the north wall shows 10 women in 1890s fashions. By contrast, a figure on the west wall shows a naked woman on a bed, with fully clothed male doctors all around.

The latest renovations include new lights and seating for Shriver Hall Auditorium. The University announced this month that the work is so extensive that the auditorium will be closed to the public from September 5 to January 15, 2018, to complete construction.

The murals apparently aren’t going anywhere. For one thing, Shriver’s will required them. And according to University spokesman Dennis O’Shea, they’re “not in the scope” of the current renovation project.

Another controversial feature of Shriver Hall is the bust of Isaiah Bowman, Hopkins’ president from 1935 to 1948, in a niche just outside the front doors. Bowman’s term as Hopkins’ first president spanned the rise of Nazism in Europe and the period of World War II.

Bowman was known to be anti-Semitic, suspect of Jews and reluctant to hire them at Hopkins. According to a 2004 book by Neil Smith, he fired one of the most promising young historians on the Hopkins faculty in 1939 on the grounds that “there are already too many Jews at Hopkins.”

Current Hopkins President Ron Daniels spoke about Bowman  and his feelings about him  during commencement ceremonies last year.

He called Bowman “an unrepentant racist and an anti-Semite,” and said he has a “visceral reaction” to his predecessor. But he also said Bowman’s accomplishments as an academic leader and public servant  — bringing the Applied Physics Lab to Hopkins and taking part in discussions that launched the United Nations — are “real and undeniable.”

One year after Daniels’ remarks, the Bowman bust remains in place, along with statues of former University President Daniel Coit Gilman and William Welch, the first dean of the School of Medicine.

Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.
Ed Gunts

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  1. Clarissa Martin and the unnamed professor should know that being offended by history is the peril of attending a school founded in 1876. Clarissa and the unnamed professor should be at University of Phoenix on-line where they can stay at home and control everything that might offend their fragile sensibilities.

  2. Hiding history we don’t like (like removing Confederate statues) doesn’t change or clarify truth. It only removes the conversation. I would really like to see all these historical artistic endeavors available to see, and discuss further. It would be to Hopkins’ credit to also write the truth beside these murals/statues and update them as the decades continue.

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