LONDON – Since Tate Britain reopened last month after a five-month pandemic shutdown, the museum has been in turmoil. Masked visitors once again roamed its galleries, halls and atrium, enjoying the huge collection of British art, from 16th-century portraits to contemporary installations.
Yet one room remains off-limits, and not because of coronavirus restrictions. The doors to the museum’s basement restaurant are closed and a sign outside says it “will remain closed until further notice”.
The walls of the restaurant are decorated with a 55-foot-long mural titled “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats,” painted by British artist Rex Whistler. The epic work, commissioned in the 1920s to attract diners, depicts a party of horse hunting through a landscape of soaring mountains, ornamental gardens, castles and Chinese pagodas in search of unicorns, leopards and other careers. exotic. “Mr. Whistler’s fun mural will make the Tate Gallery’s London crumpets and buns even more digestible,” said Lord D’Abernon, Chairman of the Tate Board of Directors, in a speech at the unveiling of the mural in 1927.
Two small sections of the work, each a few inches wide, were not mentioned by D’Abernon at the time, but they now weigh heavily on Tate administrators. One shows an elegantly dressed white woman dragging a troubled black boy by a rope; in another, the boy runs to follow behind a horse-drawn cart, tied with a collar around his neck.
This mural was the backdrop for the upscale restaurant – one of the museum’s many restaurants that grossed around $ 900,000 in total in the year before the pandemic – for nearly 100 years, but few diners seemed to notice the boy’s fate.
That changed last summer, when photos started appearing on social media and activists demanded that the boy’s pictures be removed from the walls and the restaurant closed.
Tate – the group that runs Tate Britain and its sister museums, including Tate Modern – says he cannot alter the mural, which is a work of art in his care and is part of a building protected by UK heritage laws. He promised a formal review of the future of the work, which is expected to start this summer and be completed by the end of the year.
Yet, regardless of the outcome of the review, someone will be disappointed. The mural has presented Tate with a dilemma at a time when tensions run high over how to deal with Britain’s legacy of racism and colonialism. The museum is trapped between activists who want the work removed – and whose racial justice concerns are shared by many artists and Tate employees – and the UK government, which funds the museum and promotes a less interventionist approach.
Last year UK Culture Minister Oliver Dowden introduced a ‘keep and explain’ policy for controversial monuments, after activists knocked down a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England. Museums should keep the disputed items on display, he said. “As publicly funded bodies you shouldn’t take actions motivated by activism or politics,” Dowden wrote in a letter outlining the policy to heads of major UK museums.
Tate administrators will also be cautious as the government’s desire to curb the crusade appears to be influencing the makeup of museum boards. Officials must approve appointments to the boards of directors of major institutions, including Tate. In January, the ministry decided not to renew Aminul Hoque, an academic who called for the “decolonization” of the British program, for a second term on the board of the Royal Museums Greenwich. The chairman of the organization’s board of directors resigned in protest. In March, a trustee at the science museumSarah Dry withdrew a reappointment after feeling compelled to support the “keep and explain” policy, she said in a letter to the museum’s board.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture said, “We are committed to ensuring that our publicly funded organizations reflect the full diversity of the taxpayers they serve,” adding: “There is no automatic presumption of renewal.
The ministry declined to comment on the Whistler mural.
The director of another large London museum, who requested anonymity because he did not want to publicly criticize the government, said Tate faced a difficult decision. “But it’s only difficult because the government is making it difficult,” added the museum director. One option could be to build a false wall around the work so the restaurant could reopen while a long-term solution was discussed, the manager said, but that would defeat the “keep and explain” policy. .
And activists want more than temporary solutions. The social media fury began last July, when The White Pube – the name used by art critic duo Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente – posted photos of his offending sections on Instagram. “How does this restaurant still exist?” They wrote in the caption. “What is this interior decoration?
“How do these rich whites still choose to go out there to drink in ‘the best wine cellars in the capital’ with prime slavery in the background?” the added message. An online petition asked Tate to remove the mural from the wall or the restaurant in the room.
Overnight, Tate changed its website to remove a reference to the restaurant as “Europe’s funniest room” and a few months later Tate administrators discussed the mural. The museum’s ethics committee declared “unequivocally” that the work was offensive, according to the minutes of the meeting.
In December, Tate promised examining the future of the mural. “We wouldn’t want to preempt this process with further speculation,” a Tate spokesperson said. Tate declined several interview requests for this article.
The White Pube said in an email that it was weird that Tate was taking so long to find a solution. “We believe Tate’s inability and unwillingness to do anything about the mural, beyond vague abstract thinking, is a sad and sad indictment,” they said. .
Yet the problematic images were the subject of discussion within the museum long before The White Pube brought them to public attention. Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain from 2010 to 2015, said in a telephone interview that in 2013, when The Whistler mural has been restored as part of a $ 63 million museum overhaul, some staff raised concerns. Authorities wrote a flyer for diners who asked about the mural, she said.
“There has been some talk about putting a screen on it,” Curtis said of the section showing the enslaved black boy, “but that would only have drawn attention to it.”
In 2019, a sign was affixed to the door of the restaurant, like the explanatory texts in the galleries of the museum. Four paragraphs, the text acknowledges that “Whistler portrays the slavery of a black child and the plight of his mother using very stereotypical figures that were common at the time. “
Some staff said this sign does not go far enough. “The statement did not address the racism or trauma caused by these images,” Maria Kubler, former head of volunteers at Tate, said in an email. Kubler left the organization in January 2020 because she felt a “lack of support around my efforts to tackle issues of racism,” she added.
Rudi Minto de Wijs, former co-chair of Tate’s staff network for people of color, said members of the group were “disgusted with the mural” and raised the issue several times in meetings. Last summer, after the social media storm, he met Maria Balshaw, director of Tate, online and presented a proposal from the network to turn the restaurant into an educational space, he said.
Balshaw said the idea would be considered, “but nothing happened,” said de Wijs. “Nothing ever happens,” he added. He bought the museum back in April, after being made to feel like “a troublemaker,” he said.
The frustrations of Tate staff members clash with the public programming of the museum group, which has recently championed the work of black artists. Last year, the Tate Modern hosted a major retrospective for filmmaker Steve McQueen, and recently put on a show spanning the entire career of the photographer Zanele Muholi. Soon Tate Britain will be opening a exhibition exploring Britain’s relations with the Caribbean and another by Lubaina Himid, the British artist who won the 2017 Turner Prize.
Campaigners expected Tate to change faster than it could, said Himid, who is also a member of Tate Britain’s advisory board. “Nothing in Tate is fast,” she said in a telephone interview, “but compared to museums in France and Spain, or Italy, it is moving at an absolute rate.”
The restaurant should be handed over to artists to respond to the Whistler mural, Himid said: Plexiglass could be installed in front of the artwork, and artists could draw on it, or groups could provide musical responses to it.
Removing or hiding the mural would lose a chance to spark a conversation about how Tate might change, Himid said. “I expect other artists to have different opinions,” she added.
However, it was not clear if this was the case: a dozen major British black artists – including McQueen, Yinka Shonibare and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – declined interview requests for this article.
A major retrospective of Yiadom-Boakye’s work ended at Tate Britain last month, and on a recent afternoon black visitors to that show expressed varying opinions about what should happen to the Whistler mural.
Kevin Charles, a 52-year-old lawyer, said the restaurant should be opened. “We are mature enough to be able to see things in context,” he said. Three interviewees said they liked Himid’s suggestion that the space be handed over to artists of color. But the strongest opinions came from those who believed there was only one decision, and that Tate should have made it a long time ago.
“It’s totally disgusting and needs to be taken out immediately,” said Vitella Thompson, 50, a lawyer.
“Cover up,” said Ione Brown, fitness instructor. “Why do we have to remember this past? She added. “Put one instead,” she said, saluting Yiadom-Boakye’s enigmatic portraits of black subjects. “These are magnificent. These are celebrations. “