Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has combed the archives of the British Museum for artefacts from human history that signal dissent and speak truth to power. The result is the exhibition I Object that opened last week.
Hislop says that “the British Museum is considered the voice of the victors, the rulers and the authorities, their weapons, their statues, their mummies, their jewellery”. He wants to discover from looking through the museum’s archives whether “anyone else gets a say”.
He discovers that dissent has been a persistent presence in the historical record “across the globe, across historical and geographical periods”.
The exhibition shows that from earliest times those denied power and a voice in their society have always tried to make themselves heard in some way and to comment and subvert the established order.
Some have gone further, organised against the powers that be and tried to rally others to their cause.
The artefacts that Hislop has chosen to display are clearly the tip of the iceberg—there are nine million objects in the British Museum’s archives.
The exhibition displays a sample of satirical illustrations from the eighteenth century British radical press. It includes work by Richard Newton, whose targets included the slave trade, Napoleon, the rich and royalty.
Yet the museum holds another 12,000 political illustrations and cartoons from the same period.
The exhibition raises questions of interpretation.
One of Hislop’s favourite items is a fired clay brick from southern Iraq, 605-562 BC, taken from Baghdad by a nineteenth century British diplomat.
The official museum label says that it is a “brick inscribed with the name and titles of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon”. The brick is thought to be part of a building programme connected to the expansion of the ancient city of Babylon. Each brick had the name of the ruler carved into it to show his power and prestige.
Yet one of the museum’s curators pointed out to Hislop that in the top right-hand corner, someone, presumably the brickmaker, had carved the name Zabina.
For Hislop it represents an “amazing act of dissent” because Nebuchadnezzar might have ordered it, but it was Zabina who made it.
The exhibition plucks out whatever caught Hislop’s eye. It is an eclectic choice and doesn’t have room to give a meaningful historical context for each piece.
Some are anonymous tilts at authority and some represent powerful and brave attacks on dictators and repressive regimes. Who took the time to deface a penny coin with the head of George VI by carving a swastika symbol and NAZI across his face?
Who had the guts to embroider a wall hanging depicting a leopard with the Congolese proverb “The skin of the leopard is beautiful, but inside it is war”—assumed to be a criticism of the Zairean dictator Mobutu?
How powerful is the Indian anti?colonial print of the Hindu goddess Kali with a necklace of severed heads of Europeans?
I Object—Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent is on at the British Museum until 20 January 2019