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.
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.
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, activa