The dark side of the British Empire and its foundation on slavery and cheap labour is being emphasised in a major revamp of one of the world's greatest museums.
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has redesigned its British galleries to highlight the empire's troubled history as a way of illustrating the country's rich tradition of arts and crafts.
The galleries, which open to the public tomorrow as part of the Met's 150-year anniversary programme, hold a rich display of British decorative arts, design and sculpture from the 400-year period between Henry VII and Queen Victoria.
The museum says it has made its collection "relevant to a contemporary audience" by emphasising the development and growth of the British Empire "with all of its systems of exploitation".
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Wolf Burchard, the Met's curator, told artnet news: "For all the beauty of these objects, the British Empire was the backbone of the British economy and the funds made available to produce these things is in part due to the empire and the slave trade — and you have to acknowledge that."
One gallery, devoted to "Tea, Trade, and Empire", explores the period with 100 English teapots displayed in a pair of 3m-tall cases.
In another section, an anti-slavery medallion made by the Wedgwood pottery workshop, showing a man in shackles, appears alongside an 18th-century plan of a slave ship. The caption reads: "Much of the wealth of this period [was] built on the labour of enslaved Africans and on the appropriated resources of other countries."
Another display is a figure from 1719, produced in China by the Cantonese artist Amoy Chinqua, showing an East India Company entrepreneur whose imports from China, India, and the West Indies included tea, sugar, coffee, and chocolate, as well as porcelain, cotton, mahogany, and ivory, "produced at great material and human cost, and then transported thousands of miles" for the benefit of Britain's new middle class.
The Met's publicity material for the display states: "The new narrative offers a chronological exploration of the intense commercial drive among artists, manufacturers, and retailers that shaped British design over the course of 400 years.
"During this period, global trade and the growth of the British Empire fuelled innovation, industry, and exploitation. Works on view illuminate the emergence of a new middle class — ready consumers for luxury goods — which inspired an age of exceptional creativity and invention during a time of harsh colonialism."