In this paper, I propose a new approach for understanding the meaning of memory politics, which draws upon the archetypal literary criticism of Northrop Frye. I suggest that the four archetypes elaborated by Frye—comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire—can be used as a heuristic device for interpreting the contested historical narratives that are associated with the politics of memory. I illustrate this approach through a case-study of Artists and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, an exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2016, amidst increasing contestation over the meaning of the British Empire. In sum, I find that the exhibit narrated Britain’s imperial past as a comedy, in which a key theme was the progressive cultural mixing of the British and the people they colonized. To conclude, I discuss the implications of such a narrative for constructing an inclusive, postcolonial British identity. As an alternative, I draw on Aristotle to suggest that a tragic narrative would have been more propitious.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Alexander, J.C. 2004. On the Social Construction of Moral Universals: The ‘Holocaust’ From War Crime to Trauma Drama. European Journal of Social Theory 5 (1): 5–85.
Alexander, J.C., and P. Smith. 2003. The Strong Program in Cultural Sociology: Elements of a Structural Hermeneutics. In The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology, ed. J.C. Alexander, 11–26. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Alexander, J.C., and P. Smith. 2010. The Strong Program: Origins, Achievements, and Prospects. In Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. J.R. Hall, L. Grindstaff, and M. Lo, 13–24. London: Routledge.
Aristotle. 1996. Poetics, trans. M. Heath. London: Penguin.
Baker, S.A. 2014. Social Tragedy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bal, M. 1994. Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting. In Cultures of Collecting, ed. J. Elsner and R. Cardinal. London: Reaktion Books.
Boyce, S. 1986. Lay Back, Keep Quiet, and Think of What Made Britain So Great. Charcoal, Pastel and Watercolor on Paper. London: Arts Council Collection.
Brandard, J. 1835. Ikmallik and Apelagliu. Lithograph. London: Tate Britain.
Brendon, P. 2008. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997. London: Vintage.
Brooks, R.L. (ed.). 1999. When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice. New York: NYU Press.
Clifford, J. 1995. Paradise. Visual Anthropology Review 11 (1): 92–117.
Collings, M. 2015. Artist and Empire, Tate Britain, Exhibition Review: Face the Past. The Evening Standard, 24 November, https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/exhibitions/artist-and-empire-tate-britain-exhibition-review-face-the-past-a3121646.html. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Condor, S., and J. Abell. 2006. Romantic Scotland, Tragic England, Ambiguous Britain: Constructions of ‘The Empire’ in Post-devolution National Accounting. Nations and Nationalism 12 (3): 453–472.
Conway, B. 2009. Rethinking Difficult Pasts: Bloody Sunday (1972) as a Case Study. Cultural Sociology 3 (3): 397–413.
Coombes, A. 2004. Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identities. In Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, ed. B.M. Carbonell, 231–246. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Cumming, L. 2015. Artist and Empire Review: Illustrations Minus the Narrative. The Guardian, December 6. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/dec/06/artist-and-empire-review-tate-britain.
Donagh, R. 1983. Lough Neagh. Pencil and watercolor. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Dubin, S.C. 2006. Incivilities in Civil(-ized) Places: “Culture Wars” in Comparative Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies, ed. S. Macdonald, 477–493. New York: Wiley.
Duncan, C. 1995. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge.
Egonu, U. 1964. Northern Nigerian Landscape. Oil on Hardboard. London: Tate Britain.
Euben, J.P. 1990. The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Evans, R. 2014. Michael Gove Shows his Ignorance of History-Again. The Guardian, January 6, 2014.
Eyerman, R. 2001. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Fante People (Unknown Artist). Asafo Flags. Cotton. London: Tate Britain.
Ferguson, N. 2004. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin UK.
Frye, N. 1957. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fyfe, G., and S. Macdonald. 1996. Theorizing Museums: Representing Identity and Diversity in a Changing World. London: Wiley.
Gibney, M., R.E. Howard-Hassmann, J.M. Coicaud, and N. Steiner (eds.). 2008. The Age of Apology: Facing up to the Past. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gilbert, A. 2015. British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4 July 1879. Mixed Media. London: Tate Britain.
Gilroy, P. 2005. Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gott, R. 2011. Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt. London: Verso Books.
GOV.UK. Press release: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt visits Singapore. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/press-release-foreign-secretary-hunt-speech-in-singapore. Accessed 28 April 2018.
Hahn, C. 2017. Nailing One’s Colours: Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire. Identities 24 (1): 26–33.
Halbwachs, M. 1992 . On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hashimoto, A. 2015. The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Heath, M. 1996. Introduction. In: Aristotle. Poetics, trans. M. Heath. London: Penguin, pp. ii–xxxv.
Hudson, M. 2015. Artist and Empire, Tate Britain, review: ‘Just not good enough.’ The Telegraph, 23 November, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/artist-and-empire-tate-britain/. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Jacobs, R. 2000. Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jaggi, M. 2015. ‘Artist and Empire’ at Tate Britain. The Financial Times, 27 November, https://www.ft.com/content/6b7e47c2-92ba-11e5-bd82-c1fb87bef7af. Accessed 20 June 2019.
James, L. 1994. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Macmillan.
Jones, J. 2015. Artist and Empire Review—A Captivating Look at the Colonial Times We Still Live In. The Guardian, 23 November, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/23/artist-and-empire-review-tate-britain. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Jones, O. 2016. Is a Queen Victoria statue offensive? It’s about time we debated our colonial past. The Guardian, 7 March 2016.
Joy, G.W. 1893. The Death of General Gordon. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Britain.
Karp, I. 1991. Culture and Representation. In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. I. Karp and S. Lavine, 11–24. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Lavine, S.D., and I. Karp. 1991. Introduction: Museums and Multiculturalism. In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. I. Karp and S. Lavine, 1–9. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Levitt, P. 2015. Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums put the Nation and the World on Display. California: University of California Press.
Locke, D. 1974. Trophies of Empire. Ceramic, Wood, Metal, Glass, and Other Materials. London: Tate Britain.
Locke, H. 2006. Restoration. Photograph with mixed media collage. London: Hales Gallery.
Maori Roof Gable Figure. (18th/19th century). Wood. London: Tate Britain.
McClintock, A. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge.
Millais, J.E. 1874. The North-West Passage. Oil painting. London: Tate Britain.
Mishra, P. 2011. Watch this Man. London Review of Books 33 (21): 10–12.
Mock, S. 2011. Symbols of Defeat in the Construction of National Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Muldoon, P. 2005. Thinking Responsibility Differently: Reconciliation and the Tragedy of Colonisation. Journal of Intercultural Studies 26 (3): 237–254.
Olick, J.K. 2013. The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility. Oxon: Routledge.
Olick, J.K., and J. Robbins. 1998. Social Memory Studies: From “Collective memory” to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices. Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1): 105–140.
Paxman, J. 2012. Empire. London: Penguin UK.
Pithawalla, M. 1878. Houseboy. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Britain.
Prösler, M. 1995. Museums and Globalization. The Sociological Review 43 (1): 21–44.
Rawsthorne, I. 1961. Three African Figures. Oil on Panel. Private Collection.
Riegel, H. 1995. Into the Heart of Irony: Ethnographic Exhibitions and the Politics of Difference. The Sociological Review 43 (1): 83–104.
Roberts, A. 2006. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Sant, J. 1842. Captain Colin Mackenzie, Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Affghan Dress. London: National Army Museum.
Schudson, M. 1997. Cultural Studies and the Social Construction of “Social Construction”: Notes On ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’. In From Sociology to Cultural Studies: New Perspectives, ed. E. Long, 379–398. Oxford: Blackwell.
Scott, D. 2004. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Singh, A., and R. Singh. 2009. EnTWINed. Gouache and Gold Dust on Conservation Mountboard. London: Museum of London.
Smith, A.D. 2009. Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach. London: Routledge.
Smith, P. 2005. Why War: The Cultural Logic of Iraq, the Gulf War and Suez. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, P., and N. Howe. 2015. Climate Change as Social Drama: Global Warming in the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stuart, G. 1785. Portrait of Mohawk Leader and British Ally Thayendanegea, Known as Joseph Brant. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.
Tagore, R. 1939. Head of a Woman. Watercolor on Paper. Nirmalya and Maya Kumar Collection.
Tate Britain. 2015a. Wall Text, Gallery 1, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015b. Wall Text, Gallery 2, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015c. Wall Text, Gallery 3, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015d. Label for: British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015e. Wall Text, Gallery 4, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015f. Wall Text, Gallery 5, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015g. Wall Text, Gallery 6, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015h. Label for: A. Gilbert (2015) British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4 July 1879. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015i. Label for: S. Van de Passe (1616) Portrait of Matoaka. Print. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015j. Label for: U. Egonu (1964) Northern Nigerian Landscape. Oil on hardboard. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Britain. 2015k. Label for: R. Tagore (1939) Head of a Woman. Watercolor on paper. Nirmalya and Maya Kumar Collection. London: Tate Britain.
Britain, Tate. 2015a. Wall Text, Gallery 7, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past. London: Tate Britain.
Britain, Tate. 2015b. Label for: A. Singh and R. Singh (2009) EnTWINed. Gouache and Gold Dust on Conservation Mountboard. London: Museum of London.
Tate Photography. 2015a. M02729, Installation View of Artists & Empire Exhibition, Tate Britain November 2015–April 2016. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Photography. 2015b. M02735, Installation View of Artists & Empire Exhibition, Tate Britain November 2015–April 2016. London: Tate Britain.
Tate Photography. 2015c. M03336, Installation View of Artists & Empire exhibition, Tate Britain November 2015–April 2016. London: Tate Britain.
Teeger, C., and V. Vinitzky-Seroussi. 2007. Controlling for Consensus: Commemorating Apartheid in South Africa. Symbolic Interaction 30 (1): 57–78.
Tharoor, S. 2017. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. London: Scribe Publications.
Thornhill, T. 2015. The Art of Empire: New exhibition Breathes Life into Era When the Sun Never Set on Britain’s Conquests. The Mail Online, 24 November. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3331890/The-art-Empire-New-exhibition-breathes-life-era-sun-never-set-Britain-s-conquests.html. Accessed 26 June 2019.
Torpey, J.C. 2006. Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Turner, V. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Wagner-Pacifici, R., and B. Schwartz. 1991. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Commemorating a difficult past. American Journal of Sociology 97 (2): 376–420.
Ward, S. 2001. Introduction. In British Culture and the End of Empire, ed. S. Ward, 6–7. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
West, B. 1771. Sir Joseph Banks. Oil on Canvas. London: Tate Britain.
White, H. 1990. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Woods, E.T. 2016. A Cultural Sociology of Anglican Mission and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada: The Long Road to Apology. New York: Palgrave.
Van de Passe, S. 1616. Portrait of Matoaka. Print. London: Tate Britain.
YouGov. 2014. The British empire is something to be proud of. http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/6quatmbimd/Internal_Results_140725_Commonwealth_Empire-W.pdf. Accessed 12 August 2017.
Younge, G. 2018. Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit. The Guardian, 3 February 2018.
Zolberg, V. 1998. Contested Remembrance: The Hiroshima Exhibit Controversy. Theory and Society 27 (4): 565–590.
This article would not have been possible without Dr Helen Kim’s unwavering generosity, encouragement and support, as well as her willingness to discuss and debate the meaning of Britain’s imperial past for many long hours. Thank you, Helen. I would also like to thank Professor Jeffrey C. Alexander, Professor Philip Smith, and Dr. Chris Moffat for their comments on an earlier draft. I am also grateful for the reports of the three anonymous referees. Their close reading of the manuscript, and their incisive yet collegial comments, is a testament to the kind of intellectual community that is coalescing around the American Journal of Cultural Sociology. My thanks are also due to Managing Editor Anne Marie Champagne, for her excellent proofreading of the text.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Woods, E.T. The anatomy of memory politics: a formalist analysis of Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and Empire’ and the struggle over Britain’s imperial past. Am J Cult Sociol (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-019-00081-y
- Collective memory
- Northrop Frye
- British Empire
- National identity
- Tate Britain