Education

University of Iowa to spend $1 million cleaning up protest graffiti, archiving it along the way

In removing spray paint, UI will archive the movement

Graffiti along For The Kids Way near the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is seen June 7 after protesters passed
Graffiti along For The Kids Way near the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is seen June 7 after protesters passed through in Iowa City. (Lily Smith/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa is spending $1 million to remove from its campus buildings — including the 178-year-old Old Capitol and 93-year-old Field House — spray painted messages Black Lives Matter protesters left earlier this summer.

In doing so, the UI Libraries is promising to capture and preserve images of the graffiti “to ensure the messages are not forgotten and can help guide campus in its work to make meaningful changes,” according to the UI Office of Strategic Communication.

Hundreds of protesters who have gathered on the Pentacrest, marched to Interstate 80 and trekked to Kinnick Stadium left in their wake graffitied social justice messages, including “BLM” initials and other symbols and tags.

The $1 million cleanup aims to remove spray paint from the exteriors of the Old Capitol, its neighboring Schaeffer and Macbride halls on the Pentacrest, Kinnick Stadium and the 112-year-old President’s Residence overlooking an Iowa River bluff along a historic brick road.

The project — employing five Iowa companies — also will clean up graffiti on the UI Hospitals and Clinics campus; the Voxman Music Building; the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center; the historic Field House; Van Allen and Phillips halls; Pappajohn Business Building; Psychological Brain Sciences Building; and biology buildings.

Affected residence halls include Currier, Mayflower, Burge and Daum. Removal of the paint — including from sidewalks, retaining walls, steps, plaques, light poles, windows, signs, artwork and benches — is underway and expected to be done within a month.

Materials needing “special care” in the cleaning process include the Iowa limestone in the Old Capitol. The Pentacrest’s Macbride and Shaeffer halls also need extra care too “due to their historic nature and material composition,” UI Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz said in a statement.

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“The Biology Building also requires additional care due to the amount of spray-paint on the building along with the building materials,” Lehnertz said. “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.”

Although many across Iowa City have voiced support for the protesters’ message and mission, vandalism — especially of Kinnick Stadium and the hospital campus — sparked criticism, including across social media.

‘Archiving the movement’

To preserve the messages, UI Libraries will collect photos in an “institutional archive” that will grow and expand with additional documents, video clips, sound recordings and first-person narratives, according to UI officials.

The Old Capitol Museum and Stanley Museum of Art will work with UI Libraries to ensure the collection is not static, “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.”

Images of the graffiti eventually will be made available online, according to Margaret Gamm, head of the UI Special Collections and University Archives.

“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,” she said in a statement.

UI Libraries archivist David McCartney acknowledged the process will take time.

“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,” McCartney said. “We also recognize the problems with archival silence.

“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.”

UI Provost Montserrat Fuentes highlighted the balancing act between recognizing the protesters’ messages, honoring their “grief and anger at systemic racism,” while preserving the campus.

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“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 cleanup and restoration,” Fuentes said in a statement.

Although Iowa City and UI police did not make widespread arrests of protesters blocking roads, vandalizing buildings and tearing down fences during demonstrations, officers in June did charge one of Iowa City’s protest leaders Mazin Mohamedali, 20, with related offenses — including a felony for destroying a $5,000, 8- foot-tall fence protecting the Old Capitol.

That charge — plus others for unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct — later were dropped, and Mohamedali now is living in a local halfway house on an unrelated conviction.

In response to the recent demonstrations and demands, city and UI officials have announced policing changes, internal reviews and audits. The university additionally created a “re-imagining campus safety action committee” tasked with helping to “develop a new future of public safety for the campus that further prioritizes campus diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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