We all abhor injustice, from big issues that fire us up to protest in the streets, to leaving a sarcastic note for the person who used all the milk and didn’t buy some more. History is written by the victors so it’s tempting to think all signs of dissent have been erased from the records — but have they?
Satirist Ian Hislop (Private Eye and Have I Got News For You) has been rummaging through the British Museum archives to uncover history’s rebels who claimed their little victories. From defacing a coin to creating a Day of the Dead puppet in the guise of Uncle Sam, history hasn’t been able to erase all cases of the little person ‘sticking it to the man’.
One such example is a brick stamped with the name of then Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. This was a legal requirement for all bricks at the time, but one builder has scrawled his own name on it too. Little did he know that thousands of years later his little ‘up yours’ to the king would end up in The British Museum.
A cartoon shows the representation of Britain John Bull farting in the face of the King George III. As Hislop has remarked, British people do love a fart joke.
The goddess Kali is surrounded by decapitated heads of European men, representing India’s fight back against colonialism, while an Afghan rug has Afghan soldiers defeating horned demons symbolising the Soviet invaders. All of these objects in the museum’s collection may go unnoticed if we walked past them normally, but this show gives them new life through fascinating stories that make us examine them in more detail.
China had to hastily withdraw some stamps commemorating the Barcelona Olympics when they realised the numbers on the athlete’s vests referred to the events at Tiananmen Square. A similar story occurred when the words ‘sex’ and ‘scum’ were subtly snuck into the design of a couple of Seychelles banknotes. We like this idea of a bored production line worker testing the limits of what they can sneak past their supervisor. It’s the kind of push back against the system we all wish we had the bravery to pull off.
The modern day is not ignored. A pussy hat used by Trump protesters is on display, along with a photograph of a woman removing her hijab in contravention of Iranian law. While there is plenty of humour in the show, it does remind us that freedom of expression is still denied in other countries, and our right to protest and satirise is something we often take for granted.
The museum isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself in presenting an artefact it mistakenly purchased thinking it was ancient Yemeni, only for it to be found to be a fake. Plus Banksy’s Peckham Rock reappears in this show — it duped staff at the museum for three days, only being taken down when Banksy revealed the hoax on his website.
The objects on display in this exhibition may not be the finest or most eye-catching, but the stories behind them are brilliant. It’s always challenging to show an established collection in a new light, but taking the angle of dissent has proven to be an excellent way to go about it.
I Object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is on at The British Museum from 6 September 2018 to 20 January 2019. Tickets are £12 for adults.