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Introduction to the Foundations of Tate Britain

The Galleries

By 1776 transportation to the New World had been interrupted by the American War of Independence and old sailing ships known as hulks were dragged up the Thames and stuffed with up to 70,000 prisoners. This though was to be an 'expedient' that lasted till 1859. In 1779 the government introduced an Act which created a new form of hard labour for prisoners in the hulks. It commenced with dredging the river Thames - a profitable precursor to expanding trade with the colonies - and made provision for building Millbank penitentiary amongst others.

The penitentiary was the largest in Europe. It became the 19th Century cesspit for containing the rowdiest of the political mob. Henry James, who visited the prison in 1884, made use of his visit. In the novel 'The Princess Casamassina' (1886) he has Miss Pynsent describe the "brown, bare, windowless walls, ugly, truncated pinnacles and a character unspeakably sad and stern. It looked very sinister and wicked, to Miss Pynsent's eyes, and she wondered why a prison should have such an evil air if it was erected in the interest of justice and order... it threw a blight on the face of the day, making the river seem foul and poisonous." As with today, there was considerable delay in government building programmes.

Transportation to Australia, made possible in 1787, began to relieve the pressure on the stinking hulks. It was not until 1817 that Millbank penitentiary finally opened. A convict at this time was stripped, shaven and sentenced to penal servitude, not imprisonment, and spent the first nine months of their sentence in solitary confinement. Before the birth of the prisons, punishment was an open display of power: public executions, floggings, disembowelling etc. The worry of the time was that such overt displays had become a source of contention to the mob and public order was threatened in various ways. Parliament, therefore, detached punishment from the public gaze and into prisons. Middle class society increasingly condemned the poor as products of their own low and immoral natures and, in 1834, the Poor Law was introduced, in which Disraeli announced to the world "that in England poverty is a crime". Other comments of the time condemned the poor as a vast heap of social refuse, the "mere human street-sweepings" who "serve as manure to the future crime-crop of the country". The main view of the ascendant middle class was that the poor existed beyond the farthest reaches of civilized, art-loving society and were an indolent, ignorant, degraded, criminalised sub-race. These views were structured into science by, amongst others, Beddoe, a future president of the Anthropological Institute.

A racial or quasi-racial view of the poor was not the only one. Liberals, believing in the 'levelling-up' theory (that the labourer would emulate the artisan) dwelt upon the possibility of teaching even the lowest the virtues and satisfactions of self-help. The liberal elite of the mid and late 19th century put their faith in the new persuasive power of the museums amongst other things such as schools and public parks. The birth of museums became a complement to prisons. The museum then, as now, provided a mechanism for the transformation of the crowd into an ordered and, ideally, self-regulating public. The democratic education of the mob was an attempt to addict them to the aspirational tastefulness of Victorian society. For the new social elite, sharing what had previously been private, exposing what had been concealed, became a totem of progressiveness.

The Tate, with a more or less free admission policy, surgically removed the decadence and tyranny before offering the morsels of taste generated under previous forms of social control. The museum provides a solution to the social chaos of the street: a site where bodies, constantly under surveillance, could be rendered docile through exposure to Gainsborough, Turner and Hogarth, instead of the jailer's whip and bludgeon. If the prison changed you through discipline and punishment, then the museum was a way to show and tell so that you might look and learn. Here, the purpose was not to know about people's culture but to address people as the subjects of that culture; not to make the population visible to power but to render power visible to the people and, at the same time, to represent to them that power as if it were their own. The museum became, and is still, a technical solution to the problem of displaying wealth and power without the attendant risks of social disorder.

Further reading: 'The Political Rationality of the Museum', Tony Bennett

The Tate is a family of galleries and operates on four sites in different parts of Britain:

Tate Britain, located at Millbank, London, founded in 1897

Tate Modern, located at Bankside, London, founded 2000

Tate Liverpool, located in the Albert Docks, Liverpool, which opened in 1988

Tate St Ives, located on Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, which opened in 1993

To learn more about the history of the Harwood De Mongrel Tate Web site read the FAQ.

In order to provide increased display space and to offer improved services to visitors, the Tate has embarked on an ambitious programme of development and expansion: the creation of the new gallery, Tate Modern at Bankside, the development of Tate Britain at Millbank, the expansion of Tate Liverpool and the continuing development of Tate St Ives.

The Tate is a pilot museum for the