Museums: The Colonial Context

An investigation into the British colonial propaganda in museums

What is a museum to you?

When you walk into a museum and see paintings, sculptures, and installations, or even insects, costumes, and technology, have you ever considered what you’re not looking at? Museums are carefully curated storerooms that house the collections that represent the history of a society in a precise and stringent manner. In the UK, our museums are stacked to the rafters with objects and artworks, often from the proceeds of the British Empire. Ultimately, we’re embarrassed about our violent and aggressive history, so many museums only show you what they want you to see: a non-confrontational, quiet acceptance of colonial history, which is better left undiscussed. But these museums leave clues to this undisclosed history everywhere: have you ever noticed that where you should see the word ‘slave’ alongside a painting, it actually says ‘servant’ or ‘page’?

Some museums are making excellent progress in confronting this taboo, but this post will demonstrate that they still have a very long way to go.

A Case Study: British Baroque at the Tate Britain

Let’s approach this tricky topic with an example. Tate Britain’s exhibition, ‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion’ was on display from 4 February to 19 April 2020 (it closed early due to recent events), but let’s be clear on something: this exhibition is recent, and although it might seem like a faux-pas from the 80s, it’s not.

‘British Baroque’ contained many disturbing seventeenth-century paintings by Italian artist Benedetto Gennari, one of which was Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin, as Diana, 1688. The painting depicts a white woman in a frothy gown, surrounded by dogs and child slaves. It’s a difficult painting to look at, and not because of the Baroque excess that the Tate wants you to see. In relating slavery to the decadence and excess of the Barqoue period, the gallery completely ignores the troubling links not only with slavery, but child slavery. It is important to display paintings that deal with the UK’s particularly uncomfortable history, but unfortunately, the Tate curators completely miss the mark on why this painting is important and relevant.

Interestingly, Portrait of Hortense Mancini is extremely hard to find online. The Tate itself does not offer an image or a description, and if you Google the portrait, all you can find are some low-quality visitor’s snapshots (see above), accompanied by a post expressing their horror at how the Tate Britain dealt with this painting; these opinions are few and far between. Curiously, other similar paintings have also been omitted from the Tate’s online catalogue: for example, Willem Wissing’s 1675 portrait of Mary Grimston with a black ‘servant’ (which in the seventeenth century actually meant slave, but we wouldn’t want to offend the British public with the truth. Although slavery wasn’t officially legal in Europe until 1776, people had been selling and using slaves since the sixteenth century, and they were often given as ‘gifts’ to wealthy families), which was also present in the exhibition, is equally hard to find online. Something to hide, Tate?

Responsibility and Reality

For an exhibition that focussed on stately homes and sexual scandal, it demonstrated a real lacking in genuine context. Masked by floating gowns and frothy whiteness, the sexual connotations of Gennari’s painting, amongst others, were also happily ignored. The Duchess Hortense Mancini sits, breasts exposed, and surrounded by children who are evidently not her own. In some ways, we have become numb to the uncomfortable balance of nudity and inappropriateness that is so prevalent in this period of painting. But we don’t have to sit back and admire it just because it’s ‘art’ – Gennari’s painting is disturbing, and we should recognise that. The painting is also composed to assert racial superiority, and it epitomises the morally distorted upper-classes of the seventeenth century. The slaves are carefully positioned at the same level as Mancini’s pet dogs, and with unfaltering, adoring gazes, they are poised for her entertainment with instruments and weapons. In this painting there is no mistaking these child-slaves for servants: note the chains around their necks.

It is a shame that the exhibition was so ignorant (unintentionally or otherwise), because I genuinely think that it would have been more interesting to viewers if the Tate had openly engaged with the horrors of slavery and colonialism, rather than the Heat-magazine-esque scandals of King Charles II’s court.


Aside from the profound lack of in-depth research and good curatorship for this exhibition, it reeks of reinforced colonial complacency. I’m not saying that art exhibitions should make their visitors feel guilty for their historic connections to some of Britain’s darkest moments, but the responsibility to inform visitors about the reality of these artworks is imperative. It falls to the museum not to cover up our colonial history with stories of tokenistic pomp and circumstance, but to be honest and open about our conflicting past, no matter how dark and uncomfortable it may be. 

Having scoured the internet for exhibition reviews, it became alarmingly clear that the large majority of visitors found the exhibition ‘informative in understanding the history of the time and ‘superbly orchestrated. Even the negative reviews only criticise how the exhibition was sapped of the scandal and drama that defined the period, resulting in ‘more a sniff of disdain than a blockbuster. This emphasises how ordinary people, and even exhibition critics, cannot critically engage with history if it is not presented to them.

As viewers, we tend to only question what we see, not what we don’t see. This sums up the problem with art galleries and museums today: even now, midway through 2020, we still revere exhibitions which skim over the gory details in order to paint British history as a picture of unerring power and glory. Realistically, the only way forward is to show people that real history is actually more interesting and enriching than the airbrushed fanfare that we see time and time again. What’s more, without understanding the real context in which artworks were produced, we’re seriously missing the bigger picture. Had the Tate included a room that openly engaged with the British politics and maritime expansion of the seventeenth century, viewers would have come away with a more profound understanding of the art that they’re looking at. It’s time to step up the game. Unfortunately colonial histories can be found in a huge proportion of British art collections, whether it was purchased via proceeds from the slave trade, or pillaged from distant shores, but the message is simple: viewers need to be told the truth, and museums need to stop covering it up.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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