Colonial tourism at the National Portrait Gallery

23 Mar

Something I am really interested in is the indigenous peoples of North America and their ongoing story of re-establishing their identity while fighting for their heritage to be restored to them.  So I was really excited to read about the new exhibition of paintings of the North American indigenous peoples by George Catlin at the national Portrait Gallery.  Today I braved the freezing winds and rain and went along to see what it was all about but my experience was not what I was expecting…


When I discovered that the National Portrait Gallery had opened a new exhibition called ‘George Catlin: American Indian Portraits’ featuring portraits of hundreds of  people from various indigenous North American nations I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go along and view this lost world through incredibly detailed and wonderfully colourful paintings. We owe Catlin a huge amount for detailing not only the views of these peoples but also writing detailed accounts of the lives of their lives and cultures.  However as I progressed through the exhibition I became more unsettled as it occurred to me that by displaying the paintings as they originally were at the 1839 exhibition in London, the curator has unwittingly (one hopes) given life to the colonialist, supremacist experience of the portraits which nearly two hundred years of increased empathy and experience have extinguished.


The gallery’s website explains that the pictures are displayed so as to ‘suggest the sense of spectacle created by Catlin and demonstrate how he constructed a particular image of American Indians in the minds of his audience’ [ ] (minus the live spectacles laid on to wow the original audiences!) but in doing so it failed the artworks and subjects. 


This exhibition, as a replica of a Victorian show, caters for an audience which inhabited the homeland of one of the largest empires in the world, with little interest in the peoples displayed other than being thrilled by their unusual, exotic cultures. However, we do not share the same sensibilities and beliefs as that audience. We are no longer colonial tourists, seeking out the thrill of discovering the exotic natives and looking down upon less-civilized (read less technologically advanced) peoples of the world; nor are our attitudes imperialist or our beliefs supremacist.  Why then did this exhibition want to present these paintings as if we were still the Victorian visitors of Catlin’s shows?


Catlin was convinced of the imminent annihilation of the cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America and sought to preserve it as best he could.  At the original exhibition of the portraits in London Catlin crowded them together, more than 500 in total, which must have, as it did when I went, evoked the fact that the subjects were members of living nations which faced destruction from the laws passed by the US federal government. Perhaps this message was received by the original audiences too but overwhelmingly this display of mostly anonymous faces left me feeling distanced from them and their stories.


I find it hard to understand what the relevance of this Victorian set up is for modern audiences.  Surely a great opportunity to view and understand more about the cultures of these people and the history they inhabited has been missed.  I felt as if the exhibition was designed for a casual glance and an ‘mm’ as visitors walked the exhibition’s circuit.  This was enhanced by the lack of space which would have allowed visitors to really take in the paintings and reflect the huge spaces of North America.  I overheard a couple of visitors, obviously keen to know more about what they had come to see, complain about the size of the informative plaques beside each painting. This further added to the sense that the exhibition was not so much about the peoples as simply about the fine technique or interesting products of Catlin’s journey.  The chronological construction was sensible but didn’t allow for exploration of the portraits.  The focus was more upon Catlin’s journey across North America, giving it the impression of a sight-seeing trip. 


It is sad that this exhibition missed the mark by choosing to display these pictures in such a manner, missing the chance to truly enlighten and delight visitors simultaneously without leaving any with the feeling that it was all a bit of a colonial sideshow in a national gallery.  This approach reproduced an exhibition for a bygone era and outdated ideas.  The focus was taken off the people of the paintings, which was counterproductive to achieving Catlin’s goal of saving the indigenous peoples of North America from being lost. A goal which it seemed interested in achieving since the pictures have not left America for exhibition since 1850!


The gallery’s mission was impossible in any case not least because of the difference in size and content with Catlin’s original exhibition of artefacts as well as his 500+ works. It was also impossible because of the cultural palettes of its modern audience. I do not think that a single one of the visitors there with me today held the same ideas of civilization or rights as the original spectators but even then what was this exhibition about: was it about Catlin’s journey, his Victorian exhibition or the native peoples of North America? My hope is that the exhibition provokes similar feelings in visitors and heralds more of a discussion about the legacy and future of the people’s of North America.


Post Number One…

23 Mar

Hello blogreaders!

If you come to read my blog then you will  probably get alot of different kinds of things to read.  I don’t write diaries so I guess this will have mostly things which I have thought about or experienced and think are worth writing about (like my next post) and hopefully you will find them interesting and enjoy them!