Problematic sections of a work painted on the walls of Tate Britain have found museum officials caught between the demands of the activists and the policies of the British government.
LONDON – Since the reopening of Tate Britain last month after a five-month pandemic shutdown, the museum has been in turmoil. Visitors in masks revel in its galleries, halls and atrium, enjoying the vast collection of British art, from 16th-century paintings to contemporary installations.
Yet one room is off limits, not because of coronavirus restrictions. The doors to the museum’s basement restaurant are locked, and a sign outside says it “will be closed until further notice.”
The restaurant’s walls are decorated with a 55-foot-tall mural titled “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats,” painted by British artist Rex Whistler. The epic work, begun in the 1920s to lure diners, depicts a hunting party riding through a landscape of soaring mountains, ornamental gardens, castles and Chinese pagodas in search of unicorns, leopards and other exotic mines. is. “Mr. C. Whistler’s fun fresco will make the Tate Gallery’s crumpets and London buns even more assimilating,” Lord D’Ebern, chairman of the Tate Trustees, said in a speech at the mural’s unveiling in 1927.
The two small volumes of work, each a few inches wide, were not mentioned at the time by D’Aberon, but they now fall heavily on the trustees of the Tate. One depicts a cleverly dressed white woman dragging a struggling black boy with a rope; In another, the boy runs to the back of a horse-drawn carriage, which is tied with a collar around his neck.
That mural has been the backdrop for the upscale restaurant – one of several eateries at the museum, which brought in about $900,000 in the year before the pandemic – for nearly 100 years, yet some diners are shocked at the boy’s plight. Had to pay attention.
That changed last summer, when photos began to appear on social media, and activists called for the boy’s images to be removed from walls and the restaurant to close.
Tate – the group that runs Tate Britain and its sister museums, including Tate Modern – says it cannot change the mural, which is an artwork in its care and part of a building protected under British heritage laws. It has promised a formal review of the future of the work, set to begin this summer and finish by the end of the year.
Still, whatever the review ends with, someone will be disappointed. The murals have put Tate in a dilemma at a time when tensions are running high over Britain’s handling of its legacy of racism and colonialism. The museum is torn between activists who want to remove the artwork – and whose concerns about racial justice are shared by many artists and Tate employees – and the British government, which funds the museum and takes a less interventionist approach. supports.
Last year, Britain’s Minister of Culture, Oliver Dowden, outlined a “maintain and explain” policy for controversial monuments after campaigners toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England. He said that museums should put the disputed objects on display. “As publicly funded bodies, you must not take activism or politically motivated action,” Dowden wrote in a letter outlining the policy to the leaders of Britain’s major museums.
Tate trustees will also be treading cautiously as the government’s desire to curb the crusade is affecting the makeup of museum boards. Officials must approve appointments to the governing councils of major institutions – including Tate. In January, the ministry decided not to reappoint academic Aminul Haque, who called for the “decolonization” of Britain’s curriculum, for a second term on the board of the Royal Museum Greenwich. Chairman of the Board of the Organization resigned in protest. In March, a trustee in the science museumSarah Dry withdrew a reappointment application after feeling pressured to support a “keep and explain” policy, she said in a letter to the museum’s board.
In an emailed statement, a Ministry of Culture spokesperson said, “We are committed to ensuring that our publicly funded bodies reflect the full diversity of taxpayers,” adding that “no automatic presumption of reappointment is not.”
The ministry declined to comment on the Whistler mural.
Another prominent London museum director, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to publicly criticize the government, said Tate was faced with a difficult decision. “But it is only difficult because the government is making it difficult,” said the museum director. An alternative might be to build a false wall around the work so that the restaurant could reopen while a long-term solution was discussed, the director said, but this goes against a policy of “maintain and explain”. Will happen.
And campaigners want more than a temporary solution. The social media uproar began last July, when The White Pub – the name used by a pair of art critics, Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente – Posted pictures of your offending sections on Instagram. “How does this restaurant still exist?” He wrote in the caption. “What interior decoration is this?”
“How do these rich white people still go to drink from ‘the capital’s finest wine cellar,’ with some choice of slavery in the background?” Post added. an online petition Tate sought to remove the mural from the wall, or the restaurant from the room.
Overnight, Tate changed its website to remove the restaurant’s reference as “the most entertaining room in Europe”, and a few months later, Tate’s trustees discussed the mural. The museum’s ethics committee was “clear” that the work was offensive, according to the minutes of the meeting.
In December, Tate promised A review of the future of the mural. “We would not like to pre-empt this process with further speculation,” a Tate spokesman said. Tate declined multiple interview requests for this article.
White Pub said in an email that it was bizarre that Tate was taking so long to find a solution. “We think Tate’s inability and unwillingness to really do anything about the mural, beyond vague abstract thought, is a sad, sad indictment,” he said.
Yet the problematic images are being discussed within the museum even before the White Pub brought them to the public’s attention. Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain from 2010 to 2015, said in a telephone interview that in 2013, when Whistler murals restored as part of $63 million revamp of the museumSome staff members expressed concern. He said officials wrote a flyer to diners who asked about the mural.
“There was discussion about putting a screen on it,” Curtis said of the segment showing the enslaved black boy, “but that would only have drawn attention to him.”
In 2019, a sign was attached to the restaurant door, similar to the explanatory texts in the museum’s galleries. Four paragraphs in the text acknowledge that “Whistler depicts the enslavement of a black child and the distress of his mother using highly stereotypical figures that were common at the time.”
Some staff members said the signal didn’t go far enough. “The statement failed to address the racism or the trauma caused by those images,” Maria Kubler, a former Tate volunteer manager, said in an email. Kubler left the organization in January 2020 because he felt a “lack of support around my efforts to address issues of racism.”
Rudy Minto de Vij, former co-chair of Tate’s staff network for people of color, said members of the group “hated the mural” and repeatedly raised the issue in meetings. Last summer, after a social media storm, he met with Tate director Maria Balshaw online, and put forward a proposal from the network to convert the restaurant into an education space, he said.
Balshaw said the idea would be considered, “but nothing happened,” de Wij said. “Nothing happens,” he said. After feeling like “a troublemaker,” he shopped from the museum in April, he said.
Jar Tate staff members’ frustration with the public programming of the museum group, which has recently championed the work of black artists. Last year, the Tate Modern held a major retrospective for filmmaker Steve McQueen, and it has most recently presented a career-spanning show by photographer Zanelle Muholy. Soon, Tate Britain will open a Exhibition exploring Britain’s relationship with the Caribbean and Another by Lubaina Himido, British artist who won the 2017 Turner Prize.
Himid, a member of Tate Britain’s advisory council, said activists were hoping Tate would change faster than it could. “Nothing is too early at the Tate,” she said in a telephone interview, “but compared to the museums in France and Spain, or Italy, it is moving at a wholly helpful pace.”
The restaurant should be handed over to artists to respond to Whistler’s mural, Himid said: Plexiglas could be installed in front of the work, and the artist could draw on it, or the band could make musical reactions to it. .
Himid said that removing or hiding the mural would be missing an opportunity to stir up conversation about how Tet might change. “I expect other artists to have different ideas,” she said.
It was unclear, however, if this would have happened: A dozen prominent black British actors, including McQueen, Yinka Shonibare and Lynette Yiadom-Boke, turned down interview requests for this article.
A major retrospective of Yiadom-Boakye’s work finished last month at Tate Britain, and on a recent afternoon, black visitors to that show expressed several thoughts on what should happen to the Whistler mural.
Lawyer Kevin Charles, 52, said the restaurant should be open. “We are mature enough to be able to see things in context,” he said. Three interviewees said they liked Himeed’s suggestion to switch places for artists of color. But the most forceful thoughts were those of those who felt that there was only one decision, and that Tate should have arrived much earlier.
“This is absolutely disgusting and needs to be removed immediately,” said lawyer Vitella Thompson, 50.
“Cover it,” said fitness instructor Eoin Brown. “Why do we have to be reminded of that past?” she added. “Put one of these down instead,” she said, waving to Yiadom-Boecke’s enigmatic portraits of black subjects. “These are beautiful. These are a celebration.”