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Tate Britain: National Identity on Display

As cultural landscape components, museums and their theatrical displays play a critical role in creating and acting place-based identity (Bennett, 2013, p. 3). Many museums and galleries participate in curating ideas of national identity by cultivating certain biases and aspirations of high culture for their visitors through subliminal messaging. Tate Britain's BP: A Walk Through British Art is a valuable example of how art displayed in the context of cultural conservation may promote certain ideals in defining national identity. As products and promoters of high culture, museums risk retaining certain practices rooted in imperialism and violence. As a narrative tool, the exhibition risks encouraging its audience to adopt a predilection to high culture as Britain's principal cultural value. A Walk Through British Art's heavy but natural use of works within the Western canon seldom includes the cultural experiences of other British sub-cultures and communities outside of London and ethnic minorities and women.


The challenge for this exhibition is to capture the vastness of the British national identity, which comprises English, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh culture and various other sub-cultures. Located in London, its positionality stakes a claim to what Britishness is, or rather where it can be found. Risking centering London life, its placement, and the exhibition's curation overlooks many artistic contributions and cultural moments outside the city. When considering the challenge of representing a vast identity, the natural assumption is to base it on one of Britain's most culturally diverse and evolving cities. However, the attempt to centralize it to London's bustling cultural value is found to be lackluster and ironic. The potential to convey the great, vibrant cultural currency of London is lost in the lack of representation of the sub-cultures and minorities that give London its name, without the very multi-culturalism and hybridity that occupies the area in which the museum is built.

Figure 1: Tate Britain - "the home of British art from 1500 to the present day."

The majority of the art chosen for the exhibition comes from the Western canon. It maintains the phallic, patriarchal, and capitalistic ideals that high culture characterizes. The lack of appropriate representation of minority groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, that contribute to Britain's complicated history is evocative of a Britain based on masculinist history. In one sense, this may be the aim of the exhibition. However, this would entail that the museum aims to push forward and facilitate the idea of British culture rooted in imperialism, patriarchy, and high culture. This intention is characteristic of cultural refinement and begs the question of what kind of ownership museums take in creating cultural codes and definitions. The poet and natural anarchist Matthew Arnold, known for his critique of the British aristocracy, espoused that an intention such as this promotes certain products of culture as "the best that has been thought and said" (Mathews, 2000, pp. 1-2). The canon, being constructed of said chosen objects of high cultural value, perpetuates the reputation of these objects as important, influential, and aspirational. In shaping Western culture, the high culture within the canon is a recurring theme, and art that participates in this context is at risk of perpetuating imperialist, racist, misogynistic, and capitalist ideals. As such, objects of art held at high value are interpreted as the quintessence of civilization and extreme educational value for the uncivilized classes.


The recurring theme of high culture can be felt through the majority of the exhibition, ranging from rooms '1540' to '1890'. Pieces that capture aristocrats, famous people in history, large estates, and even popular scenes or characters featured in plays and novels occupy these rooms. Paintings such as the glorifying scene of John Singleton Copley's The Death of Major Pierson, 6 January 1718, or the captured timelessness of Shakespeare's Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt. are pieces that fall within the canon. They provoke many a question as to how they, and those who conserve them, define British culture. Portraits that hung in Display Room '1540', are an excellent example of how the exhibition heavily portrays high culture and refinement. The room contains portraits of aristocratic individuals, portraying wealth and valour, important enough to be captured by or to commission an artist (see Image 2). These characteristics of high culture are conserved through the art and in their modes of display, as well as in the very context of the museum - the architectural epitome of high culture and western essentialism, which automatically aligns British cultural identity with high cultural values. The museum is constructed to engineer "a regulated commingling of classes such that the subordinate classes might learn, by imitation" (Bennett, 2013, p. 10). What it risks is to perpetuate classism, racism, and xenophobia in creating a relational space that relies on the aspiration to assimilate, hierarchy, and access through notions of high culture.

Figure 2: A wall of paintings that capture the pre-raphaelites era, such as Sir John Everett Millais, Bt.'s 'Ophelia'.

Paintings of landscape, too, encourage high culture, such as in Jan Siberechts' View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex, 1696 (see Image 3). The country house and estate portrait capture the lives of people and how and where they lived, visually representing the gentry, high culture, and sophistication. Paintings of this nature not only act as historical accounts of British life in the past but, within the context and politics of art and display in the museum, motivate a dramatic visual theatre of high cultural esteem. Such display in the conservation of art emphasizes its significance and cultural currency, activating the mechanism for hierarchical education and imitation that molds the characteristics of high culture into the quintessence of British identity (Bennett, 2013).


Moreover, the subject of Siberecht's painting is a building in Belsize, Middlesex, and now Belsize Park in northwest London, where Tate Britain stands. The geographical context of the art poses an interesting question about the importance of origins and museum collections. In this case, the painting in content and context relates to London, centering the cultural production – or origin - to London once again. Naturally, this could result from many variables, such as the painting's innate value in art historian discourse. Therefore, it is an important asset to this museum and possibly even to logistics and planning. However, the implications of its existence, especially its performative use in this exhibition, employ the sense of a "shared or similar experience" essential to societal, cultural, and communal identity construction (Stedman, 2002, p. 563).

Figure 3: Jan Siberecht, 'A View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex'.

The waves of impact from curation and visibility affect the visitors' experience, employing the psychology of place and space – that is characteristic of museums and monuments as constructs of social and cultural identity – embedding in their experiences the subliminal and symbolic sense of familiarity and collectivism that is curated into this exhibition. Such mechanisms impact memory through experience, forming a shared memory that can powerfully impose ideologies of identity that can then transcend spatial and temporal contexts. For instance, through the exhibition's potent use of space and place, visitors are capable of being transported into the scenery of paintings of places they have never visited, yet feel the impact of the painting and in shared cultural memory:


“Through extensive interaction with a place, people may begin to define themselves in terms of . . . that place, to the extent that they cannot really express who they are without inevitably taking into account the setting that surrounds them as well” (Ryden, 1993, p. 76).


Figure 4: Lubaina Himid's 'The Carrot Piece' (1985), one of the few works by a black woman on display at Tate.

The place attachment one may experience is made vivid through their interactions with paintings and the choices in curation. In duality, they are affecting forces to one's sense of identity. The choice of pieces that reflect life in London through the landscape, popular culture, or architecture and design makes the intentionality of London-place-based identity evident, and Tate Britain fails to encompass the entirety of Britain and its history.


Within Britain's history, various cultural moments have emerged from women, members of its colonies, and various internal political-cultural groups that have challenged the status quo. From these moments emerged cultural assets in the form of art, theatre, and music, that have influenced the trajectory of cultural change. From the perspective of intersectionality, the representation of othered communities and alternative cultural moments through Britain's past is not bold. However, the few artworks that are present, such as Chris Ofili's No Woman No Cry, change the experience and interpretation of the exhibition altogether. Ofili's work, as one of few, breaks away from the canonical structure of the exhibition, introducing an intercultural discourse that is representative of the sub-cultures on the confines of the western canon (Lo & Gilbert, 2002, p. 36). This interruption is refreshing in its embrace of artists from sub-cultures and minorities, such as Black British artists and women.

Figure 5: Chris Ofili, 'No Woman No Cry'.

These moments of intercultural engagement within the exhibition are not static and move between imperialistic and collaborative extremes (Lo & Gilbert, 2002, pp. 38-39). Their presence livens the exhibition with representative, inclusive, and altering perspectives of Britishness. As moments of contrast, they offer historical context to other works of British art that stand as quintessential markers of civilization. These works, like their counterparts that feature in the canon, are representations of history, culture, and context. Their inclusion helps move the focus away from essentializing high culture. Ofili's No Woman No Cry piece not only stands as a representation of Black British artists, but the art represents a reality that Siberecht's work does not, for example. The historical context considered, Ofili's work suggests an entirely different perspective of London that does not retain visitors in the romanticized past, as Siberecht's work does. No Woman No Cry is a powerful depiction of the harsh reality for Black British people in London who face discrimination, violence, and lack of political justice. The crying woman depicted is Doreen Lawrence (now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE), the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered as a teenage boy in a racist attack in London in 1993. The photographs inside her tears are images of Stephen. The sobering reality of Ofili's London, compared to Siberecht's tranquil version, provokes critical thought that centers and validates the diversity of cultural and historical contexts shown in the exhibition. Through this approach, the exhibition opens Britain's national identity up to interpretation. From this perspective, it is easy to overlook its failure to showcase a representative Britain and its many complicated past histories. Nevertheless, this careful curation is notable towards what is included just as much as what is excluded. The works chosen from minority groups are striking and thought-provoking, encouraging visitors to experience other cultural experiences and participate in them.


In light of Brexit, the culture of nationalism has intensified, and the nature of exhibitions like this comes under critical observation. The choice, or perhaps consequence, to center London, complicates the interpretation of this exhibition. London's multicultural atmosphere may be adopted as a microcosm of Britain's due to a higher concentration of culture than anywhere else in the country, but to stand as the representative example for the whole nation's cultural atmosphere is a bold and brave approach. In doing so, it overlooks London's multiple economic, cultural, social, political, and infrastructural advantages over other cities and towns, creating a seemingly reductionist and arrogant claim to tie an entire nation's identity to one city. However, the advantages of doing so are equally important and work to heighten the mechanisms of place-based identity central to community creation. Despite its weaknesses and successes, the exhibition facilitates an interesting conversation on identity. The timeline of diverse historical and cultural moments delivered in one space demonstrates the complexity of place-based identity, and as such, the exhibition calls for an expansive interpretation.


Biographical Sources

Anderson, B. (2006). Introduction. In B. R. O'G, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.


Bennett, S. (2013). From Display to Experience. Theatre and Museums, 8-23.


Constable, J. (1828-9). Sketch for 'Hadleigh Castle' . Tate Publications. Tate Gallery, London.


Lo, J., & Gilbert, H. (2002). Toward a Topography of Cross-Cultural Theatre Praxis. The MIT Press, 46(3), 31-53.


Mathews, G. (2000). On the Meanings of Culture. In G. Mathews, Global Culture/Individual Identity (pp. 1-29). Routledge.


Ofili, C. (1998). No Woman No Cry. Tate Publication. Tate Gallery, London.


Ryden, K. (1993). Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place. University of Iowa Press.


Siberechts, J. (1696). A View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex. Tate Publications. Tate Gallery, London.


Stedman, R. C. (2002, September). Environment and Behaviour. oward a Social Psychology of Place, Predicting Behaviour from Place-based Cognitions, Attitudes, and Identity., 3, 561-581.

Tate Britain. (n.d.). Chris Ofili: No Woman No Cry. Retrieved December 28, 2017, from Tate: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ofili-no-woman-no-cry-t07502


Tate Britain. (n.d.). Cornelius Johnson: 1593-1661. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from Tate: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/cornelius-johnson-297


Image Sources

Figure 1: Trip Advisor. (n.d.). Tate Britain. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g186338-d188865-Reviews-Tate_Britain-London_England.html


Figure 2: BP Walk through British Art, Tate Britain. (2014, August 11). The Glass Magazine. https://www.theglassmagazine.com/a-walk-through-british-art-pre-raphaelites-back-to-tate-britain/


Figure 3: Siberechts, J. (n.d.). View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex (1696). Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/siberechts-view-of-a-house-and-its-estate-in-belsize-middlesex-t06996


Figure 4: Himid, L. (n.d.). The Carrot Piece (1985). Tate: Responses to Tate’s Collection by Our BAME Network. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/responses-tates-collection-our-bame-network

Figure 5: Ofili, C. (n.d.). No Woman No Cry (1998). Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ofili-no-woman-no-cry-t07502




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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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