Spray-paint removal across campus continues; age of buildings and certain building materials require special care be taken

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Thursday, July 9, 2020

The University of Iowa is capturing and preserving images of spray-painting on campus during recent Black Lives Matter protests to ensure the messages are not forgotten and can help guide campus in its work to make meaningful changes.

The photographs will become part of an institutional archive that will grow over time, along with personal papers, documents, photographs, video clips, sound recordings, and other first-person narratives that individuals choose to contribute to the University Archives.

“The photos will be fully accessible online at a later date, as staff take care with each photo to assess and preserve the digital files, add accurate descriptions to the extent possible, and craft finding aids,” says Margaret Gamm, head of Special Collections and University Archives at the UI Libraries. “This process ensures the photos will be easy to access and will raise the visibility of the vital information they contain: the voices of marginalized people.”

The messages were spray-painted during recent protests to call out continued disproportionate police brutality against people of color and a lack of racial equity and justice in the community and across the country.

“We recognize that the photos will become part of the institutional memory recorded in our university archives. As archivists, we are keenly aware of potential pitfalls in a white institution rushing to collect materials about marginalized communities of color, problems such as collecting to ‘check the box’ or collections that hurt or mischaracterize communities of color. We also recognize the problems with archival silence,” says David McCartney, UI Libraries’ university archivist. “Our efforts to document the protest will be a slow process as we listen carefully to the Black community, actively working to expand relationships, engagement, and partnership over time in an authentic and ethical manner.” 

While the spray-paint will be removed, the messages and their importance, however, won’t be forgotten thanks to photos, which will be available online.

“We have a crucial responsibility, as a community and as an institution of higher education, to recognize the meaning and the message behind the spray-painting, to honor its significance in this historic moment, and to not let the message be lost or diminished. Protesters created this spray-painting to express their grief and anger at systemic racism, and we must continue to hear that anger and listen to those voices,” says Montserrat Fuentes, executive vice president and provost. “However, we also have a responsibility to care for the property and landmarks that have been entrusted to us, and it is important that we proceed with careful clean-up and restoration.”

The exteriors of many campus building have been or are in the process of being cleaned in the coming weeks, including Old Capitol, the President’s Residence, Schaeffer Hall, Macbride Hall, the Biology Building, Kinnick Stadium, UI Hospitals & Clinics, the Iowa Memorial Union, Currier Hall, Mayflower Hall, Burge Hall, Daum Hall, Phillips Hall, Biology Building East, the Psychological Brain Sciences Building, Van Allen Hall, the Pappajohn Business Building, Voxman Music Building, the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, the Pharmaceutical Sciences Research Building (the former Pharmacy Building), and the Field House.

Spray-paint is also being removed from sidewalks, retaining walls, steps, plaques, light poles, windows and screens, signs, artwork, and benches.

The age of some of the buildings, as well as the presence of certain building materials—such as the Iowa limestone used on Old Capitol, which is designated a National Historic Landmark—require that special care be taken to remove the spray-paint, as traditional methods could damage the buildings.

The cleaning budget is $1 million, and the work is being carried out by ServPro of Iowa City, Iowa; William Sewell & Co. of Mount Vernon, Iowa; DIFCO, Inc. of Davenport, Iowa; Max-Cast Sculpture and Foundry Services of Kalona, Iowa; and D.A. Bunch Co. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cleanup has begun and is expected to be completed in the next month.

While some building materials are more forgiving of the cleanup process, others can be damaged by the harsh chemicals and abrasive methods typically used to remove spray-paint. An evaluation of the impacted buildings was conducted, as well as sample removal tests.

“Most buildings are able to be cleaned using typical spray-paint removal methods,” says Rod Lehnertz, senior vice president for finance and operations. “However, three buildings—Old Capitol, Macbride Hall, and Schaeffer Hall—require additional care due to their historic nature and material composition. The Biology Building also requires additional care due to the amount of spray-paint on the building along with the building materials.

“It’s important to also note that the removal efforts on historic buildings may make the surfaces more susceptible to spray-paint damage in the future, thus making them harder to clean without permanently damaging the surfaces,” Lehnertz says.

The Old Capitol has been a center of culture and civic discourse for the state since the Fifth Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa first convened there in 1842. The building, which has served as library, chapel, armory, classroom, office, and today as a museum, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Cleaning and restoration will ensure these buildings continue to provide students, faculty, staff, and the people of Iowa spaces to exercise their freedom of speech, debate new ideas, and practice academic scholarship well into the future. Collecting and preserving photographs and other artifacts ensures that even though the historic buildings are cleaned and restored, the messages conveyed in the spray-paint will not be lost to present and future scholars.

Campus organizations such as the Old Capitol Museum and the Stanley Museum of Art will partner with the UI Libraries’ Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio to ensure that the collection is not a static archive, but becomes a platform for interactive engagement, collecting and retelling first-person stories of individuals whose contributions to the campus community are underrepresented in the archives.

Fuentes says while the spray-paint is being removed from campus buildings, the messages will continue to educate and guide campus in its work to eliminate prejudices and barriers for people of color. 

“The spray-painting has been preserved in photographs and will, I hope, contribute to educational programming across our campus for years to come,” Fuentes says. “But what is most important is that we work with the communities that are suffering and struggling to be heard to ensure that their voices are amplified, and that we continue to learn and move toward meaningful change.”

In recent weeks, the UI has announced several new and continuing initiatives that aim to effect change on campus as a result of the recent protests, including:

  • Creating a Reimagining Campus Safety Action Committee to develop a new future of public safety for the campus that further prioritizes campus diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
  • Conducting an audit of the UI Department of Public Safety (UIDPS), including a climate assessment of interactions with communities of color. 
  • Prioritizing skill development and a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice for all employees of UIDPS. 
  • Actively participating in the Iowa City Community Police Review Board review of the Iowa City Police Department. 
  • Committing to former President Barack Obama’s Police Use of Force Project. 
  • Releasing an update to the campus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan, highlighting some of the efforts underway to advance a more equitable environment, and promote inclusiveness on every level at the UI.