For as long as we have thought that it is a good idea for some humans to have authority over others, there has been dissent. Throughout history opposition has manifested itself publicly in many forms, whether that is protests, leadership coups or even wars. But a subtler undercurrent of subversion has also existed alongside these open acts of opposition, remaining hidden often out of necessity and sometimes simply for someone’s personal amusement.
In its upcoming exhibition I Object, the British Museum has teamed up with Private Eye editor and one of Britain’s best-known satirists Ian Hislop, to reveal the messages hidden in everyday objects of dissent spanning three millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia in 1300 BC to the 2016 Presidential election.
While the turbulent state of our current political climate has given more relevance to the spate of politics-themed exhibitions from the past few years, including the V&A’s 2014 show Disobedient Objects and the Design Museum’s recent exhibition Hope to Nope, British Museum curator Tom Hockenhull insists that “it’s always the right time for an exhibition about subversion”.
The brainchild of the British Museum’s former director Neil MacGregor, the idea behind the show was for Hislop to cast his subversive eye over seemingly innocent materials from a range of eras and regions in the museum’s collection and reveal their hidden stories of dissent, satire and protest. Since Hislop wasn’t going to be able to sift through all nine million of the museum’s artefacts by himself, Hockenhull’s role was to consider the kind of items and subject areas that might pique his curiosity to start with. “I had a very scientific way of gaging his interest according to how many laughs he gave. If he said ‘oh, I don’t get that’ that was already a bit of a downer, but if he was like ‘hahaha, I like that’ then that was him showing enough interest,” says the curator.
Over 100 items have made the final cut of the exhibition, and vary hugely in terms of their origins and how they express their objection to authority. Some of the messaging is more obvious, such as an 18th Century satirical print showing George, Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) as an obese and uncouth man who seems overly fond of banqueting, booze and women.
Other items are innocent unless you happen to know their back story, such as an innocuous painting of two owls, created by artist Huang Yongyu in response to the persecution he suffered after his previous work of a single winking owl was seen as an insult to Chairman Mao during Communist China.
As an apolitical institution, Hislop and Hockenhull have also had to be careful that the museum presents a balanced view of events for visitors. “It was imperative that we had the other side of the story because where there is a movement for change, there is almost always an equal and opposite movement to preserve the status quo,” says Hockenhull. As a result, a ‘Make America Gay Again’ badge, designed as satirical twist on Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign pledge during the 2016 presidential election sits next to a ‘Crooked Hillary’ badge, and an Edwardian coin defaced with the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ is displayed with the badge of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.
“[The coin] is quite a famous object, but what isn’t widely known is that while the Women’s Social and Political Union had [a large number of] members in 1914, it was eclipsed by the membership of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage – and most of those members were female,” says Hockenhull.
Cultural institutions like the V&A and the Design Museum taking an interest in the world of politics is clearly a reflection of the highly politicised times we are living in. But it also raises wider questions around whether exhibitions like these make any real difference in encouraging people to engage in political activities, or simply provide good Instagram fodder? Hockenhull, however, is keen to differentiate the motives of the British Museum’s exhibition from those that have come before it.
“In a way this isn’t a political exhibition … this is more about coping with those injustices that you face in your own private way, and maybe having a little laugh while you do it,” says the curator. “A lot of the objects do act as some kind of punchline, where you look at a shoe or whatever then you’re encouraged to look at it again with a little bit more information and you realise it’s revealing this bigger story of hidden resistance.
“I would hope that the exhibition has a lightness in tone lacking from exhibitions that are all about fighting the power. We’re in a politically volatile world but actually there is always somebody willing to blow a big raspberry at the injustices we face, and we want people to realise that there are creative ways you can show your opposition to something.”
I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search For Dissent is on display at the British Museum from 6 September – January 20, 2019. More info here