“society” vs. society

In one of my classes last week, we took an audio tour of Brick Lane, followed by a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. I was initially confused as to why my professor chose to take us to these polar-opposite places in the same class, but then it became abundantly clear to me: the National Portrait Gallery is reflective of “society,” but Brick Lane is reflective of real society. Let me explain.

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Inside the National Portrait Gallery (source: Wikipedia)
If you haven’t been to the National Portrait Gallery, you should go. However, you really don’t have to, because I can tell you what you’ll see there: white people. Good ol’ rich white people. Nothing else. Royals, politicians, the occasional actor (honorable mention to my girl Fiona Shaw), and other WASPs of the sort. I may seem slightly agitated by this, but on the surface, there’s really nothing wrong with displaying works of fine art.

That said, please note that I said “on the surface.”

Museums are great. You get to see pretty things and pretty people and feel cultured for a few minutes, but they also have a responsibility to society. The Portrait Gallery has the word “National” in front of it for a reason. The collection is funded by taxpayers, so the gallery is meant to serve a purpose to the people. How can you possibly call something the “National” Portrait Gallery if it isn’t fully reflective of the entire nation? If we’re making people pay for something, we should probably make sure that it doesn’t completely alienate their culture.

The United Kingdom has the third largest Indian population after India and the United States. There are over four million Asian individuals (of which about 1.5 million are Indian), almost two million black individuals, and over one million mixed. That makes up about 13% of the British population unaccounted for by the National Portrait Gallery. Yes, the UK is 87% white people, but just because one kid is bigger than the other, it doesn’t mean that they are automatically more important. That chocolate chip cookie is fair game. (Source) (That source is not about the cookie.)

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Shoreditch Street Art
Brick Lane, while more diverse, made me just as mad as the National Portrait Gallery. Located in Shoreditch, Brick Lane is quickly becoming one of the most aggressively gentrified parts of central London. Still home to a plethora of Bangladeshi and Jewish storefronts, very few Bangladeshi and Jewish immigrants can actually afford to live there. With every new piece of beautiful street art and every new rad little hipster bar, property values skyrocket. Out of curiosity, I looked up apartments (flats, whatever) for rent around Brick Lane. The first thing I saw was a two-bedroom apartment in Shoreditch set a truly outrageous £750 per week.

Part of the reason that the Brick Lane gentrification debacle gets to me so much is because it hits close to home. For those of you who also go to Temple, you’ll probably know that the university is incredibly guilty of contributing to the rapid gentrification of North Philadelphia.

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The Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA (source: NFL.com)
With rumors (true-mors) of a new football stadium in the works on campus, Temple will likely be pushing hundreds of North Philly natives out of their homes, due to the inflation of property values and the drastic changes that will almost definitely come with the Linc’s North Philly twinny.

I rarely do this, but I’m up for a spirited debate. What do you think about the National Portrait Gallery’s representation (or lack thereof) of British minorities? The gentrification of Brick Lane? Talk to me!

xx Gabi

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