DR EDWIN COOMASARU // From Millbank Prison to Tate Britain: British Values and Steve McQueen’s Year 3 (2019-2021)

From Millbank Prison to Tate Britain: British Values and Steve McQueen’s Year 3 (2019-2021)

Steve McQueen’s Year 3 (12 November 2019 – 31 January 2021)

Tate Britain

Installation view, Steve McQueen Year 3 at Tate Britain © Tate.
Installation view, Steve McQueen Year 3 at Tate Britain © Tate.

Tate Britain is filled by a vast grid: photographs of 76,000 seven- and eight-year old London schoolchildren with their teachers. Some smile, others look uncomfortable. Steve McQueen: Year 3 (12 November 2019 – 31 January 2021) performs an enormous cataloguing exercise, amidst the neoclassical splendour of honey-coloured stone columns and high ceilings. In collaboration with Artangel, some images were also exhibited on advertising billboards around the city – but I want to consider the specificity of showing the installation at Tate Britain. Each individual group photo is small: a sea of faces from a distance, but up close their classroom displays are visible. Some were doing school projects on British values when caught on camera. On the walls are spider-diagrams explaining Britishness: mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy, tolerance, individual liberty. The idea that Britain might have some kind of defining characteristics has been deeply contested since the 1707 Acts of Union, when Scotland and England joined together after the former’s financial disaster following a failed attempt at establishing a colony during the late 1690s.

Britain as a state came into being as an imperial identity – the metaphors in the classroom display are shaped by centuries of colonial propaganda, that sought to portray the UK as a rightful and benevolent ruler of those subjected to its empire. Back in 2014, Education Secretary Michael Gove tried to instil what he claimed to be British values in school curricula following a particular wave of Islamophobic moral panic. As anti-racist philosopher Sara Ahmed points out, education has long been considered to be about discipline: J. Sulzer’s An Essay on the Education and Instruction of Children (1784) insists ‘all education is actually nothing other than learning how to obey.’1 Children have often been imagined as symbols of social order. Queer theorist Lee Edelman coined the term ‘reproductive futurism’ to describe the way rhetoric of procreation or youth is used as a metaphor for tomorrow.2 Indeed, exhibition curator Clarrie Wallis has argued that ‘Year 3 offers us a glimpse of London’s future, a hopeful portrait of a generation to come.’3

Almost every press response to the installation has repeated similar semantics, alongside an up-beat message: ‘a true celebration of our brilliantly diverse capital city’ (New Statesman), ‘[t]he finest advertisement for London’s rich diversity’ (Evening Standard), ‘standing for potential and liberty, representing nothing but their own unique selves’ (The Observer), ‘[i]t is a portrait, above all, of hope’ (The Guardian).4 Time Out praised the ‘celebration of this city’s diversity, its vast variety of races, cultures and backgrounds, all played out and glorified on these walls. It’s census as art … it shows us London in the future.’5 Frieze offered a lone voice of dissent: ‘although McQueen raises these topics, he does little to provoke further discussion of them. He fails to problematize them, to pressurize them, to politicize them, even.’6 I am not sure I agree with any of these accounts – Year 3 is not so simple or one-dimensional: it is deeply thoughtful, complex, and political.

Year 3 may reflect on the way we tend to conceptualise the future through child metaphors (rather than an uncritical celebration of the practice), but the installation also throws up connections between educational institutions and regimes of discipline, as well as the legacies of British colonialism in the present. The funds given by benefactor Sir Henry Tate to establish the National Gallery of British Art (built 1893–97) were generated from Caribbean sugar plantations, shaped by the aftermath of the Atlantic slave trade. The museum replaced Millbank Prison, which stood on the site from 1816 to 1890 – and operated for a time as a holding facility for prisoners before they were transported to Australia. After the site was chosen for a museum in 1892, Punch magazine ran a satirical cartoon depicting Royal Academicians in prison uniforms marching around the yard with their paintings.7 The joke draws on a history of art-making on the site: illustrations by a convict, published in The Graphic in 1873, depict inmates doing craftwork in their cells.8

The prison itself was anything but benign: in Memorials of Millbank (1875) deputy governor Arthur Griffiths paints a devastating account of violence, starvation, disease, revolts and resistance.9 The practice of expelling white convicts to colonies had been going on for decades before Millbank opened; in the 1780s the press and public associated such schemes with the British creation of Sierra Leone as a means of deporting Black people from the UK.10 In 1786 naturalist Henry Smeathman proposed such a settlement to ‘remove the burthen of the Blacks from the public for ever’ by transporting London’s ‘troublesome Blacks back to Africa.’11 The legacy of this past continues to have ramifications in the present: Year 3 was made not long after the 2018 Windrush scandal exposed the wrongful detention, denial of legal rights, and deportation of those born British subjects who had arrived in the UK before 1973. When politicians talk of British values today, the lofty rhetoric of tolerance and liberty or rule of law deliberately obscures the profoundly violent histories of systemic racism and oppression in the UK and across its empire.12

With the toppling of slave-trader statues in summer 2020 as part of a wave of Black Lives Matter protests, renewed criticism has also been placed on the role of heritage institutions in perpetuating myths about the supposedly benign values that lay behind colonialism. The location of Year 3 at Millbank emphasises links between museums, education and prisons. Perhaps each ordered photographic grid in the installation is like a cell: with the repetitive, identification-style images evoking strategies of surveillance. Set up as part of the War on Terror, the government’s Prevent programme monitors British values and radicalisation in schools: classroom displays about democracy and the rule of law in Year 3 are actually taken from the scheme. If Year 3 is about the architectures of containment and control, the exhibition insists they extend well beyond the building – long shaping British values and society itself.

Dr Edwin Coomasaru is a Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre. He was awarded a PhD and a Sackler Postdoctoral Fellowship from The Courtauld Institute of Art. He has contributed to The Irish Times, Irish Studies Review, The Irish Review, Photoworks Annual, Burlington Contemporary, Architectural Review, and the Barbican’s Masculinities (2020) exhibition catalogue. He co-convenes The Courtauld’s Gender & Sexuality Research Group and is editing a book on Imagining the Apocalypse (Courtauld Books Online).


Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 60-96, 65.
Lee Edelman, No Future (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 1-31.
Clarrie Wallis, ‘Year 3’, in Clara Kim and Fiontán Moran (ed.), Steve McQueen [exhib. cat.] (London: Tate, 2020), 160-161.
Ellen Pierson-Hagger, ‘The optimism of Steve McQueen’s “Year 3”’, New Statesman (20 November 2019, accessed: 20 November 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/year-three-tate-britain-steve-mcqueen-school-photos-review ); Ben Luke, ‘Steve McQueen’s Year 3 review’, Evening Standard (13 November 2019, accessed: 13 November 2019, https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/steve-mcqueen-year-3-review-tate-britain-a4286116.html ); Laura Cumming, ‘Steve McQueen’, The Observer, (17 November 2019, accessed: 17 November 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/nov/17/steve-mcqueen-year-3-tate-britain-review-leonardo-experience-a-masterpiece-national-gallery ); ‘The Guardian view on Steve McQueen’s Year 3 project’, The Guardian (13 November 2019, accessed 13 November 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/13/the-guardian-view-on-steve-mcqueen-year-3-project-a-portrait-of-hope ).
5 Eddy Frankel, ‘Steve McQueen’, Time Out (n.d., accessed: 26 May 2020, https://www.timeout.com/london/art/steve-mcqueen-year-3-review ).
6 Harry Thorne, ‘What All the Reviews of Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ at Tate Britain Have Got Wrong’, Frieze (15 November 2019, accessed: 15 November 2019, https://frieze.com/article/what-all-reviews-steve-mcqueens-year-3-tate-britain-have-got-wrong ).
7 ‘Royal Academicians at Millbank’, Punch (17 December 1892), 287.
8 ‘Prison Life in England: Part III’, The Graphic (8 March 1873), 232.
9 Arthur Griffiths, Memorials of Millbank and Chapters in Prison History (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1875).
10 David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (London: Pan Books, 2017), 163-174.
11 Olusoga, 165.
12 Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), 1-2, 7-9, 17-20.