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Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals

January 17 - March 29, 2009


One would travel a very long road in finding another such hospital so lavishly decorated by such distinguished artists.


That's how Dr. Thurman B. Rice described the murals adorning the walls of the medical facility now known as Wishard Hospital in an article he wrote for the Indiana State Board of Health's bulletin in October 1948. No other hospital in the nation could boast of having walls covered with murals, primarily portraits of children and landscapes, done by artists so widely respected and in some cases nationally known as T.C. Steele, Wayman Adams, William Edouard Scott, William Forsyth, Carl Graf, Clifton Wheeler and J. Otis Adams.

But even at the time of Rice's article, the murals, which were originally done on canvas fastened directly to the walls, were showing signs of wear and tear. After 34 years on display, some had begun to fade, and harsh washings and a roof leak had damaged others. However, the worst was yet to come. Several murals were painted over, while others suffered from years of poor care. As the 21st century began, it was clear that something needed to be done before the murals were beyond rescue.



The IMA's conservation lab, renowned for its skillful handling of such large-scale restoration projects as the Thomas Hart Benton murals at Indiana University, began working with Wishard Hospital to conserve the murals in 2003. With a grant from the Efroymson Family Fund, IMA conservators have been cleaning and stabilizing the murals, many of which had been removed from the hospital walls and remounted on Masonite in an earlier restoration effort in 1967, which was not performed by the IMA.

The results of the most recent Wishard conservation effort are dramatic. Removing layers of grime and yellowed varnish has revealed images as colorful as when they were first painted. In cases where the years had left marks, scars and patches of missing pigments, the IMA's conservation team -- led by Linda Witkowski, senior conservator of paintings, and Christina Milton O'Connell, assistant conservator of paintings -- has cleaned, repaired and in-painted several of the murals, resulting in images that again appear as they did nearly 100 years ago.

You can see these extraordinary transformations for yourself when the exhibition Preserving a Legacy: The Wishard Hospital Murals opens on January 17, 2009. Not only will the exhibition feature conserved murals, but also a partially conserved mural and several yet to be conserved murals for visitors to observe the conservation process in several stages.



"Everything we do is easily reversible," explains Witkowski, "so if someone wants to do more conservation work in the future, it will be easy to remove what we've done to get the paintings back to the condition they were in when we started working on them."

"The purpose of Preserving a Legacy is two-fold," said Harriet Warkel, the IMA's curator of American art. "In addition to highlighting the work of the conservation lab, it's an opportunity to educate visitors about the original project, which was unique in the nation for its time. This was a ground-breaking project that people came from all over the country to see."

The artists who painted the murals, voluntarily worked on the cash-strapped project for little pay to ensure that patients and their visitors at City Hospital's (the name of the hospital at the time) had something more interesting to look at than blank walls. One of the artists, William Edouard Scott, was African American. During a period when segregation was a fact of life, it was a testimony to Scott's talent that he was among the artists invited to take part -- and a precursor to the greater national renown that would eventually come his way.

Once the conservation effort is complete, all of the murals will be back on display in public areas of Wishard Hospital. "This exhibition is a reminder that the Indianapolis Museum of Art serves the community in many ways," said Warkel.


Please click here to view more images.

Please click here to read wall labels from the exhibition.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above article for the exhibition Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals first appeared in the Indianapolis Museum of Art's member magazine, Previews.

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