2009-03-05 / Local & State

Murals Stamp History Into Pa. Post Offices

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A new museum exhibit tells the history of Pennsylvania through the New Deal-era murals painted on the walls of dozens of post offices throughout the state.

The images span from shipyard scenes in Philadelphia and bustling railroad shops in Renovo to the agricultural tradition in Selinsgrove and the Revolutionary War's Wyoming Massacre in Tunkhannock.

"A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals'' is on view at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg through May 17.

The exhibit marks the 75th anniversary of the New Deal using dozens of high-quality photographs to trace the extraordinary stories of murals and sculptures that adorn post offices from Ambler to Aliquippa.

"They were more than making beautiful works of art,'' said Dave Lembeck, an independent scholar and co-curator of the exhibit. "They were capturing people's lives from the 1930s, preserving details of industries specific to Pennsylvania and a place in history.''

Eighty-eight of the 94 murals or sculptures commissioned in Pennsylvania remain, most in their original locations.

Communities fought vigorously to ensure that their history was accurately represented. Whether it was a bayonet missing from a depiction of the Battle of Bushy Run in Westmoreland County or an incorrect plowing method, the artists usually heard about it and corrected it, said Curtis Miner, senior curator of popular culture at the museum.

One artist, Frank Marlo, caused a huge uproar when he put Puritan hats on Quakers in Quakertown.

Lembeck and architectural photographer Michael Mutmansky, both of State College, traveled the state for years documenting the artwork. But then a dispute over rights to the images of the murals almost forced the museum to cancel the exhibit.

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Ray Daiutolo Sr. wrote in an e-mail that the artwork was part of a private collection the service maintained.

"The Postal Service owns all the physical artwork in our facilities, including the New Deal-era murals,'' he wrote. "These works were copyrightable, and to the extent that these murals have retained their copyright status, the Postal Service owns that.''

The Postal Service gave permission for the exhibit, but told the museum it could not shoot any more photos of the murals.

Without a full collection of contemporary photos, the museum had to go to the National Archives and elsewhere for archival images.

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