Britain has a long history of protest against conflict. Where once it may have been expressed in anti-war paintings and poetry, now it arrives via social media in the form of striking photomontaged imagery and slogans.
All are included in the IWM London’s fascinating exhibition, opening today. The show tracks various forms of protest going back to the First World War, and explores the movements that have sprung up over the past 100 years, some of which are still with us.
There are rare items on show, including a hand-written letter by Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne expressing his struggle to reconcile his pacifism with the rise of Hitler, which led to him to describe himself as a “practical pacifist”. Also included are the original sketches for the iconic nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom, which revealed that its distinctive shape is based on the symbols for ‘N’ and D’ in the semaphore alphabet.
A history of conscientious objection during both the First and Second World Wars is displayed, documenting the complexity of these cases, in terms of what these men and (in the Second World War) women went through, and how their decisions were received by the wider public. Letters, official documents, media reaction and even hate mail is all on show.
Elsewhere is imagery that will be more familiar to contemporary eyes. Peter Kennard and Cat Philipp’s now iconic photomontage of Tony Blair grinning manically while taking a selfie against the backdrop of a dramatic explosion is here, as is the original artwork for David Gentleman’s ‘blood splat’ posters for the Stop the War Coalition. There are also banners and other items from Brian Haw’s protest camp, which was created in Parliament Square in London in 2001 and remained there for over ten years.
While many different issues and conflicts are addressed in the show – from the World Wars to the Vietnam War to anti-Trident demos – there is a surprising continuity in the form these protests take. “Looking at what the 100-year period shows, people brandishing placards, chanting and marching are fundamentally the same,” says the exhibition’s curator, Matthew Brosnan. “Obviously the circumstances in which they’re organised are different, a lot of the protests are responding to particular events. [But] there is a common experience of what the atmosphere of a protest is like.”
The show reveals how protest has over the century consistently ebbed and flowed from a hardcore minority into the mainstream and then back again, depending on the issue at hand. “In the First World War, it was a relatively small statistical minority, but a vocal one, very determined,” says Brosnan. “And that kind of hardcore seems to exist throughout. Sometimes these hardcore protestors form an acorn of activity that blossoms into more mass engagement. That’s what you see in the early 60s with hundreds of thousands of people getting involved – also in the 80s and the late 60s with the Vietnam War, and then the biggest example in 2003 against the Iraq War. A lot of the people we spoke to about that demonstration in particular, talk about how you saw people there who’d never been on a protest in their life before.”
As to whether protests can actively cause political change, Brosnan suggests that the effect may be quite subtle, and not always related to the issue at hand. “Whether or not it’s effective in terms of making real change is quite a difficult thing to gauge,” he says. “Talking to Lindsey German from Stop the War coalition, she genuinely felt that whilst the demo in 2003 didn’t stop the Iraq War it has led to the British government acting differently in terms of military intervention in future conflicts.” While a march may not directly stop a single political action, he implies, it may ultimately sway future decisions.
People Power offers audiences an excellent overview of the history of protest politics in this country. However, by ending the main displays with the Iraq War protests of 2003, it shies away from tackling how its forms may have evolved with technological advances and social media (though this is touched on in filmed interviews with significant protagonists including David Gentleman, CND’s Kate Hudson and Vanessa Redgrave).
This is something of a missed opportunity. With social media becoming such a force for discussion and complaint, which offers communities the chance to share information, photos and films so easily, it can often feel like the frontline of modern protest. However, Brosnan does make the point that the power of protest still has most impact when people take to the streets rather than simply passively ‘like’ an opinion online.
“Whilst it’s much easier to communicate to a wider audience with social media and Twitter and Facebook and so on, to make a protest effective you still need people to actually get out on the street and take part,” he says. “It’s quite interesting how the parallels of protest across time are consistent in that way.”
People Power: Fighting For Peace is on show at IWM London until August 28; entry from £5-£10; iwm.org.uk