Smathers Library mural shows University of Florida history

(Originally printed on Nov. 4 in The Independent Florida Alligator opinions section.)

History and art combine in a recent campaign by the Smathers Libraries to restore one of UF’s largest wall murals.

Once almost forgotten and collecting dust, the mural titled “A History of Learning in Florida” now hangs on the wall above the entrance to the Smathers Library Grand Reading Room in Library East.

Last week, the mural got a makeover. After almost 60 years of relative obscurity, the UF library staff hired a team of professionals from ArtCare Mia-Nyc, an internationally recognized art-conservation business, to restore the mural (painted in 1953 by art professor Hollis Holbrook) to its former glory.

Holbrook’s mural, during conservation.

On Oct. 22, I ventured into the peaceful halls of Library East to watch a presentation given by the conservationists on their work restoring the mural.

Library East is older than Marston and far quieter than Library West. It has an air of majesty to it. The building is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Walking under the high wooden archways of the Grand Reading Room, it’s easy to imagine students from the 1900s hunched over textbooks on the tables lined sturdily down the room.

Smathers Library in ye olden times.

Students often overlook Library East. I know people who have no idea it exists. If you’ve been needing an excuse to find a UF treasure, I’d look no further than the Grand Reading Room. Like a portal to the past, the room has the air of pretentious learning and long-held tradition that, in small doses, can make a college campus somehow seem special. At the very least, it’s far more effective than a stream of Starbucks coffee cups and late-night cram sessions.

The ideal of the American university is different than it used to be. Extreme exclusivity and old-money connections are happily becoming more obsolete, at least for schools not considered Ivy Leagues. These ideas are being replaced with diversity and expansion, and buildings and programs at colleges seem to reflect that. I’m happy our education system isn’t one where only white men from rich families can take part, but I’m also happy the historical places at UF — dorms such as Murphree and Thomas Halls, built in the 1900s, and buildings like Bryan Hall and Smathers Library — still exist. Their longevity is an honorable testament to UF’s history.

The mural, sprawling boldly across the wall above the entry to the reading room, is one such relic. “A History of Learning in Florida” depicts learning in Florida from the introduction of machinery to the development of education in muted colors of red, orange and brown. However, it shows more than the progression of learning — it shows the progression of the university. Conservationists worked on the mural from Oct. 19 to 23 and found many flashbacks to the past when clearing away grime and repairing cracks.

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