Racist Mural Puts Tate Galleries in a BindBreaking News
tags: museums, colonialism, racism, Tate Galleries, Rex Whistler
Since Tate Britain reopened last month after a five-month pandemic shutdown, the museum has been bustling. Visitors in masks have roamed its galleries, halls and atrium again, enjoying the huge collection of British art, from 16th-century portraits to contemporary installations.
Yet one room remains out of bounds, and not because of coronavirus restrictions. The doors to the museum’s basement restaurant are shut, and a sign outside says it “will remain closed until further notice.”
The restaurant’s walls are decorated with a 55-foot-long mural called “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats,” painted by the British artist Rex Whistler. The epic work, commissioned in the 1920s to entice diners, depicts a hunting party riding through a landscape of soaring mountains, ornamental gardens, castles and Chinese pagodas on a quest for unicorns, leopards and other exotic quarry. “Mr. Whistler’s funny fresco will make the Tate Gallery’s crumpets and London buns even more assimilable,” Lord D’Abernon, Tate’s chairman of trustees, said in a speech at the mural’s unveiling in 1927.
Two small sections of the work, each a few inches wide, were not mentioned by D’Abernon at the time, but they are now weighing heavily on Tate’s trustees. One shows a smartly dressed white woman dragging a struggling Black boy by a rope; in another, the boy runs to keep up behind a horse-drawn cart, tethered by a collar around his neck.
That mural has been the backdrop for the upscale restaurant — one of several eateries in the museum that brought in around $900,000 in total in the year before the pandemic — for almost 100 years, yet few diners seemed to notice the boy’s plight.
That changed last summer, when photos began to appear on social media, and activists called for images of the boy to be removed from the walls and the restaurant closed down.
Tate — the group that runs Tate Britain and its sister museums, including Tate Modern — says it cannot alter 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 work’s future, set to begin this summer and conclude by year’s end.
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