Museums have begun to open their doors after the pandemic shutdowns. But there’s one museum door staying shut – the entrance to Tate Britain’s in-house restaurant. MSN reports a door sign saying it’s shut “until further notice,” and COVID-19 has nothing to do with it.

Mean streets

What then? Rodents in the pantry? Termites in the woodwork? No, an infestation of another kind — a picture on the restaurant wall, a 55-foot-long fresco by British artist Rex Whistler benignly called “The Expedition In Pursuit of Rare Meats.” Installed in 1927, the mural described a hunting party in a sylvan scene with passages of flower gardens and castles.

But that’s not all.

Also in the mural is a well-dressed white female yanking a roped little black who is struggling to keep up with her. There’s also an image of another little black boy with a collar around his neck, similarly, forced to run to stay on pace, this time with a horse-drawn cart. Given the otherwise bucolic setting, images of such unblushing racism almost seem like an afterthought, as if the artist had a sudden attack of bigotry against black people that he couldn’t contain.

A timewarp

Complaints about the mural from the public began last year when pictures appeared online. And the question that goes unasked, unanswered here is, why did Tate Britain take nearly a century to notice this thing?

Why not in 2013 when the mural was restored as part of a $63 million building redo?

We’re not talking about some historic figure in contention because he was once a slave trader like the statue of Imperialist Cecil Rhodes, embedded in the face of Oxford university. This mural is an in-your-face view of what slave trading lets loose.

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Who’s laughing?

Yet in a speech at the unveiling of the mural in 1927, Lord D’Abernon, Tate’s chairman of trustees at the time, said, “Mr. Whistler’s funny fresco will make the Tate Gallery’s crumpets and London buns even more assimilable.” “Assimilable? Funny”?

Granted Lord D’Abernon said what he said in 1927 when racism wasn’t on the white race’s mind.

But such up-front displays of bigotry against black people have been the backdrop for an upscale restaurant for 94 years and not a peep from a single diner about the mistreatment of a small boy?

MSN quotes Tate Britain’s director, Penelope Curtis from 201 to 2015 saying in a telephone interview that the museum tried some fixes. When the mural was being restored, staff members raised objections to the mural and suggested that a screen be put over the two sections showing the struggling boys. Oddly, it was voted down because the screen would have drawn people’s eyes to it, Curtis said. How odd. Wouldn’t calling attention to the troubling imagery be a good thing?

Big fix

Another remedy was tried in 2019.

Tate mounted a sign on the eatery door acknowledging that Whistler used “highly stereotyped figures that were common at the time.” Of course, the best idea would be to remove the mural, but it can't be touched. The fresco is part of the building and protected under British heritage laws. Some heritage.

The opening lines of a Margaret Atwood poem “A Night in the Royal Ontario Museum” play over and over in the mind. “Who locked me into this crazy manmade stone brain?”

It’s all such a useless sadness.