All who have seen the paintings are impressed by their great beauty, their scientific fidelity, and their artistic appeal.
– The Beloit Alumnus, 1924
Twelve oversized paintings line the walls of the Logan Museum’s second floor Shaw Gallery. They’ve adorned the walls of the museum since 1925. The Rise of Mankind murals show human evolution as anthropologists understood it in the early 20th century. They also illustrate the lives of indigenous Americans from the frozen north, across the deserts of the southwest, and up into the heights of the Andes.
The paintings had two purposes. The first was to bring the museum’s objects to life by showing the people who made and used them in realistic settings and poses. Artist John Warner Norton worked nearly two years to insure the murals were beautiful and also scientifically accurate. Many museums of the day were creating similar contexts by installing dioramas and full-sized “life groups.”
The murals’ second purpose was as a teaching tool. The Logan was founded as a teaching museum for the college and remains so today. The murals remain a teaching tool today as well. Every semester, museum curators use the Rise of Mankind paintings to frame discussions about the history of museums, anthropology, and the representation of other times and people.
Science, Art, Stereotype: The Norton Murals explores the history of the murals, how they came to the Logan, and what they reveal about anthropology in the early 20th century. Objects in the museum’s collections before 1926 are exhibited to give some idea of the murals’ original contextualizing function. Finally, the murals’ important legacy is illustrated by children’s books from the 2000s that still use Norton’s imagery.
The exhibit runs through Sunday Dec. 3 in the Shaw Gallery on the museum’s second floor.