Saturday, October 5, 2013

Can you trust your memory? Lessons from the Protecting Hand Sculpture

In Lincoln, Nebraska, where I live, there is a sculpture called “The Protecting Hand,” originally created for what was then Woodmen Accident and Life (Now Assurity Life Insurance). It still graces the south side of a downtown building, clearly visible from the state capitol, that unique tower on the plains.

I remember when I was a child, the parents were nude. 

Or were they?

I even remember my second grade teacher commenting on how terrible it was that the figures were all naked, that someone should put clothes on them.  Then I remember seeing them with clothes on for the first time. I seem to remember something about a controversy and how they finally agreed to put clothes on the figures.

But are those memories accurate?

A photo of the sculpture was recently posted on a Facebook page about Lincoln, and people began commenting on the fact that the figures were formerly nude and the clothes were added later.

Then someone had the audacity to state that the figures had always been clothed. That can't be true, I thought.  They were once naked.  Everyone knows that.  It’s part of Lincoln’s lore.

Still unbelieving, I searched for visual proof, and found this photo from the 1957 University of Nebraska yearbook:

Yep, they had clothes in 1957 – and that was before I was born.

Yet there is this collective memory of the figures being naked.  I showed the picture to my 20-year-old daughter, and she said, “Weren’t they naked at one time?”

The Facebook page shows the common consensus: The parents formerly had no clothes. Here are some comments:
  • I remember when the man and woman had no clothes
  • They are hilarious with clothing. I hope they never put clothes on the naked ones in the State Capitol Building!!
  • Remember when woodman had to dress the people. So stupid
  • Glad they never put pants on "The Thinker" or "Venus de Milo". What were the city fathers thinking?
  • I remember when they were not dressed. Really never made sense to me why they had to "clothe" them. Ridiculous.
When someone explained that it was an urban myth that they were naked, people refused to believe it:
  • there was a time, for a very long time, they were unclothed and it was very nice sculpture.
  •  Urban fact. We're talking full frontal nudity, man, woman and child. I was titillated and proud of my city. What poor hired mason had to spackle that penis?
  •  Sorry, not an urban legend. When I was young they were not clothed. Remember it vividly.
  •  I grew up in Lincoln as well. I'm positive they were naked as I also remember the big to-do when they were made to have clothes put on them. It wasn't a story I heard...I actually saw it with my own eyes countless times.
And when someone finally showed pictures to prove it, including one of the sculpture going up, that clearly shows pants:
  •  You can show me all the pictures you want, but I grew up in Lincoln, and I can tell you, they were not clothed. In fact, there was a fig leaf cod piece before there were pants. My mom thought it was so funny, she stopped so we could have a good look see. Don't know what to tell you all, but parts was parts, not pants.

 Some pretty strong feelings here.  And some pretty strong memories.

And then, after we had proved that the figures had always been clothed, someone added their comments (evidently without looking at the previous comments):
  • Miss the original art. Whoever changed this art, was a coward. If you cant handle art, leave the art. Dont change it. I mean, its the art of an insurance company, with 1950s standards. Pretty dang mild.

 Here we go again .. .

Like many legends, there is an element of truth to it.  The artist’s original model showed all the figures entirely nude, but he was asked to modify it before creating the full-sized version on the building.  That model is now on display in the Assurity building, which is now in a different location.

Why do so many people remember the figures being nude?  And why is it such a strong memory? Did it just seem like they were nude because the clothes were so understated?  Did we focus on the children and miss the clothes on the parents? Were we somehow remembering hearing about the artist’s original model and getting it mixed up with the full-sized sculpture?  Did we get some false information somewhere?

The fascinating thing about this memory is that it is not just something we heard or experienced.  It’s a strong visual memory.  Many people can “see” those naked people in their memories.  How could those memories be wrong?

I still find it hard to believe that they have always been clothed.  And what about my second grade teacher?  Was she just talking about the kids being naked? 

I’ll never know.  But what I do know is that we can’t trust our memories all the time.  And certainly not when it comes to naked people in a huge hand.


  1. This had always fascinated me, the fact that so many, including myself remember them being nude. I can remember my mom showing me and she was amused by it. I was born in 1957.

  2. It's also interesting the child nudity was deemed acceptable, but not adult nudity. Apparently the children were clothed in innocence, like all those bathtub photos most people have....?

  3. I remember not only the nude figures but the scaffolding as an adult when they were altered. The art community was outraged and wondered if Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery was next. This is not a myth. I know plenty of adults who will concur.

  4. I will always say they were all nude in the beginning. Someone argued that you can't add clothes to a statue of a nude. I have carved wood figures and I could dress them if I wished. How could so many observers be wrong? Of course all pictures seen now show the finished piece as it is today.

  5. Hi folks! Realize it's been a while since this was posted but I went down the same rabbit hole and FOUND EVIDENCE of the original nudes! Check out photo link at the bottom of this Smithsonian page.

    Our memories do NOT deceive us!

    1. The picture at the bottom of the page is the artist's original model, not the final full-sized piece. If you look closely, you can see that it is a small model in a wooden frame, not the one on the building.

  6. I recently went down the same rabbit hole and FOUND PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE from the Smithsonian! They WERE nude! (Check out the photo at the bottom of the page.)

    Our memories do not deceive us.

    1. As stated above, the picture at the bottom of the page does show them nude, but it is the artist's original model, which was rejected. It is still on display inside the Assurity Building.

  7. This is such a great story! I was born 7 years before the sculpture was installed. I do not remember them nude, but I do remember, and probably repeated the fable that they were originally nude, and had to be taken down and dressed to meet Lincoln's moral sensibilities.

  8. Great post! Did you find the yearbooks image from I'd love to pass this on to that site's creators.

    I'm a Lincoln transplant, and have heard this story over and over, and it never made sense to me. How in the world could one carve down and create the relief of the bottom of the skirt and pants?

    1. Thanks. I find the whole thing very fascinating. I don't remember where I found the photo. I just did a lot of googling.