Calvin Po

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

New displays at Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery are pious distortions of history

Guilt frames: ‘Portrait of Mai (Omai)’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c.1776. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London and Getty

Let’s indulge in some identity politics for a second: I am from Hong Kong, born as a subject of the last major colony of the British Empire, minority-ethnic, descended from Chinese refugees, now living here in exile. This summer, both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain are presenting new displays that are meant to reflect the ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ identities of Britain. Supposedly, I fit nicely among their target audience. In reality, as an immigrant looking to be included in this nation, I am perplexed by my visits. For two publicly funded museums tasked with telling the story of this country through the portraiture of its eminent figures and its art, their curators seem unsure if this is a nation worth being a part of, and if there’s a fair story to tell about it.

The National Portrait Gallery has recently reopened after a three-year, £41 million refurbishment and reworking of the building. The architects Jamie Fobert and Purcell have done an excellent job. No longer does the structure feel like a poky afterthought tacked on the National Gallery’s backside. There’s a much-needed new entrance, and the beauty of Ewan Christian’s original features have been carefully uncovered, from the mosaic floors and lost spaces to the generous roof lights. The artwork has never been seen in a worthier setting.

The curators seem to want to tell only the obvious story that British history is a scrapheap of shame

A shame then that the wall texts think so little of the artwork itself. Portraits of the long-dead are chided for their connections to colonisation and slavery. John Locke’s anti-slavery liberal theories, for instance, are caveated by his involvement in Carolina’s constitution. William Gladstone’s democratic reforms are negated by the existence of his father’s slave plantations. It’s hard to figure out what this scattershot approach to history adds to the understanding of visitors, other than serving as a nagging sign of the curators’ moral high ground.

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