The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Postal Museum are co-sponsoring a digital exhibit on post office murals focused on the American Indian.
From 1934 to 1943, the U.S. Treasury Department, through its Section of Painting and Sculpture, commissioned over 1,600 murals and sculptures to be installed in post offices throughout the United States. It was a major endeavor, intended to signify the breadth and range of the country to the American people. The post office murals project was in the grand design of public works launched during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Four hundred of these murals contained Native American images.
Many of the artists were unfamiliar with the region connected to the post office they were assigned, and most were unfamiliar with American Indian culture. While some mural images succeeded in capturing the importance of Native peoples in the American historic tableau as a result of an increased national consciousness, others were based on rumor, legend, and stereotype resulting in dramatic and sometimes bizarre inaccuracy. Only 24 Native-themed murals were painted by American Indian artists.
Artists were provided guidelines and themes for executing their mural studies. They engaged in often lengthy negotiations between the Post Office Department, the town, and other interested parties before paintings could begin. Many local communities deemed the approved designs unacceptable due to theme, content, design elements and/or method of expression. Artists were constantly reminded the communities were their patrons, and they must go to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commissions.
The long-range goal of this project titled Indians at the Post Office: Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals, is to critique, from a contemporary vantage point, all 400 of the Native American-themed murals. The purpose is to address both the virtues and the inaccuracies in these historic depictions, and to launch and continue to populate a web-based virtual exhibition on the Smithsonian National Postal Museum website.