Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two

Previously in Simeon’s life, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has run around Castle Park searching for spies, learned about the connection between Treasure Island and Bristol, earned himself a certificate, and had a rejuvenating rest. Now he is ready to tell the world about some of his other favourite things to do in the city. So, all aboard the Simeon Tour Bus. Enjoy the ride!

Stop One: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Situated half a mile uphill from the city centre is the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, which opened its doors to the public on 20th February 1905. The Edwardian Baroque building was built by the architect Sir Frank William Wills and funded by his cousin, Sir William Henry Wills (1830-1911). Some of the building suffered damages during the Second World War, but much of the original architecture remains. Initially, the museum intended to display antiquities and natural history, whilst a separate museum exhibited artwork. Due to lack of funds and the two world wars, a separate museum never materialised, and the building remains both a museum and an art gallery.

Expecting to see antiquities and natural history, Simeon was surprised to find a stone angel with a paint bucket over its head standing in the entrance hall. This is an artwork called Paint-Pot Angel by Bristol’s anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. It remains in the museum as a reminder of their successful Banksy versus Bristol exhibition held in 2009. If that was not confusing enough for the little gibbon, above the statue hung two frightening Chinese dragons. With fur standing on end, Simeon reassured himself they were not real but rather examples of carved wooden dragons used in Chinese temples during the Qing dynasty.

Further into the museum, Simeon discovered items from Ancient Egypt and Assyria, including amulets, weapons, masks and mummified cats. Many of these items were donated to the museum by Bristol-based travellers, such as, Amelia Edwards (1831-92), “the Godmother of Egyptology” who co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. Carved stone reliefs from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) of Assyria (now Iraq) found their way to the museum in 1905, but how they got from the Middle East to England remains uncertain.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has a vast collection of taxidermy (stuffed animals), although as Simeon quickly pointed out, they lack a gibbon. Some of these are in the ground floor gallery opened by Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926). These animals are examples of wildlife found in the marine and freshwater habitats of the South West of England. Included in the display are owls, falcons, oystercatchers, gulls, auks and ducks. Simeon found more British animals on the first floor of the museum, including a hedgehog, a dormouse, foxes, badgers, otters and many birds.

In the World Wildlife gallery are specimens from all over the world. Some of these were shot by trophy hunters in the early 1900s, for instance, a tiger shot by King George V (1865-1936) in Nepal in 1911. Others were once residents of Bristol Zoo whose bodies were carefully preserved after death. For most visitors, this is the closest they will get to a sloth, an echidna, a duck-billed platypus, a koala, a chimpanzee and many more animals. Simeon was not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that there were no gibbons on display.

The highlight of the World Wildlife Gallery is Alfred the Gorilla. In 1930, Alfred came to Bristol Zoo as a baby, where he entertained visitors by throwing snowballs, wearing woolly jumpers, and recoiling in horror at men with beards. Alfred also had a fear of aeroplanes. When he died in 1948, the Daily Mail jumped to the assumption that a passing aeroplane frightened the gorilla to death. In reality, Alfred suffered from tuberculosis, a disease previously thought to only affect humans. Alfred’s body was mounted in the museum shortly after his death, but in 1956, he briefly escaped from the museum. A group of university students stole the stuffed creature from the museum as a prank. Three days later, Alfred was discovered sitting in the waiting room of the student health centre.

Hanging above the museum cafe (which Simeon thoroughly enjoyed visiting), the little gibbon was horrified to come face-to-face with a hideous creature. With hair standing on end, Simeon learned this was Doris, a life-size model of a prehistoric marine reptile called a Pliosaurus. Palaeontologists do not know what Doris, named after a Greek sea goddess, looked like for certain, but she is based on fossil remains found near Westbury in Wiltshire.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns several fossils of dinosaurs, including a Thecodontosaurus antiquus, which roamed Bristol and the surrounding areas about 210 million years ago. The museum also displays a pregnant ichthyosaur specimen. The bones of the baby form the smallest “sea dragon” found to date and prove that the creatures gave birth to their young rather than lay eggs. Also in the museum is a vast collection of minerals and rocks from Bristol and further afield.

The art gallery is located on the topmost floor of the museum. Initially, the museum wished to display local artists, but the collection quickly opened up to foreign artists from all eras. Paintings span from the Old European Masters of the 1400s, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), through to the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, including Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). The gallery also contains contemporary artworks and several ceramics.

Stop Two: Bristol Zoo

Having indulged in stuffed animals, Simeon thought it about time to visit the real things. So, next stop, Bristol Zoo. “Hurry!” shouted Simeon as he ran up the road towards Clifton. “We need to get there before they move all the animals to the Wild Place Project.” Bristol Zoo is closing in 2022 and moving to the Wild Place Project in South Gloucestershire

Bristol Zoo is the fifth oldest zoo in the world. It was founded on 22nd July 1835 by Henry Riley (1797-1848), a British surgeon and naturalist from Bristol who led the Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society. Many animals were shipped from across the world ready for the grand opening, but the first big attraction did not arrive until 1868. This was Zebi the elephant, who became well-known for removing and eating straw hats. Today, there are no longer elephants at the zoo, but Simeon did not mind; he was too enthralled by the lions.

Lions were first introduced to Bristol Zoo in 1900 when they erected a new house suitable for a family of large cats. Simeon admired the Asiatic lions from behind a wire fence, although they were not very active at the time. The female, Sonika, appeared to be fast asleep whilst Sahee watched over her. Asiatic lions are the most endangered large cat species in the world. They only live in the Gir forest in India, but Sonika and Sahee arrived in Bristol from other zoos rather than from the wild. Simeon was quick to point out that his fur was a similar colour to Sahee’s mane!

Simeon had already met Bristol Zoo’s first gorilla, albeit stuffed and mounted. Now the zoo is home to a family of eight western lowland gorillas. Jock the silverback, the dominant male, can make enough noise for people a couple of kilometres away to hear. Fortunately, he did not do that in Simeon’s presence. Three adult females, Kera, Kala and Touni, and three youngsters, Afia and Ayana and Hasani, live with Jock on Gorilla Island. In December 2020, Touni gave birth, taking the total of gorillas up to eight. The baby has yet to be named.

During the 1980s, Bristol Zoo developed several new exhibits. The Reptile House opened in 1981 and now houses a comprehensive list of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes, turtles, frogs, crocodiles, iguanas and tortoises. Simeon’s favourite tortoises were the Aldabra giant tortoises, which can live as long as 100 years and weigh up to 250kg. In 1983, the Monkey House opened, where mischief occurs daily. Simeon resisted the urge to play with the cheeky monkeys, macaques, lemurs and the two agile gibbons, Samuel and Duana.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the television presenter Professor David Bellamy (1933-2019) opened the Seal and Penguin Coast section of the zoo. The attraction provides the opportunity to view African penguins and seals both on land or underwater. Although penguins are very sociable animals, they were hiding during Simeon’s visit, but he enjoyed watching the seals swimming around the enclosure. The South American fur seals were almost hunted to extinction during the 20th century. Fortunately, they are now of least concern on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Simeon loved every aspect of Bristol Zoo, but if he was forced to choose a favourite animal, he would choose the meerkats. The charismatic mob of female meerkats, one of whom introduced herself to Simeon as Bubushka, frolicked in the warmth of their house, frequently coming up to the glass to greet visitors. Simeon admired the patience of the meerkat on lookout duty and was amused when two rested their heads on a ledge and appeared to fall asleep.

Relieved not to be mistaken for an escaping zoo animal, Simeon exited Bristol Zoo with dozens of lovely memories. Bristol Zoo allowed him to meet animals from all over the world, including red pandas, armadillos, flamingos, frogs, bats, stick insects, birds, sloths, mongooses, and so much more.

Stop Three: The New Room

The next stop on Simeon’s tour of Bristol is the “New Room”, which is actually very old. This is the oldest Methodist building in the world, dating to 1740. The building, which became a chapel, was built after two religious societies in Bristol asked the preacher John Wesley (1703-91) to create a new room where they could meet. Wesley arrived in Bristol in 1739 to continue the work of the evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70), who preached on the streets of Bristol. Today, the chapel has been restored to resemble how it looked in 1748, with the addition of pews, which were added in the 19th century. As well as a chapel, Wesley used the upper floors as his home. The space is now a museum dedicated to John and his brother Charles (1707-88).

On entering the chapel, Simeon was struck by the lack of windows on the ground floor. The only source of light comes from an octagonal skylight. Methodism, as the denomination became known, was not welcome by some people in Bristol. Mobs frequently attacked members of the congregation, so the lack of windows limited the amount of damage they could create during a service. The design of the building also made it difficult for anyone to reach the preacher. The pulpit is only accessible from the upper floor.

Services usually took place at 5 am before people went to work – far too early for Simeon! Worship began and ended with a song, usually written by Charles Wesley, who wrote an estimated 6,500 hymns during his lifetime. The organ in the chapel was given to the New Room in the 1930s. During the 18th century, congregations sang unaccompanied.

Wesley did not design the New Room as a church, nor did he intentionally separate from the Church of England. The term ‘Methodism’ was initially given to the group by those who disliked the religious society. The Methodist Church came into being after the death of John and Charles. As well as preaching, John Wesley aimed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. He created food and clothing banks and argued for a national living wage. He founded affordable schools and encouraged uneducated adults to earn qualifications. Wesley also promoted cleanliness and taught people how to improve their health. He provided free medicine for the poor and improved the living conditions of those in prison. Wesley was a man before his time who campaigned against the slave trade and encouraged women to play a wider role in society.

Upstairs in the museum, Simeon explored the living quarters of John Wesley and his assistants. There were twelve small rooms and one large common room, which served as both a meeting space, dining area and study. Wesley only used two of the rooms for himself: a bedroom and a private study. Today, the rooms tell the story of the Wesley family, the start of Methodism, and life during the 18th century.

The first couple of rooms in the museum explain what life in Bristol was like before John Wesley arrived in 1739. Life for the poor was dismal in comparison to the rich. Simeon’s eyes widened, and his mouth salivated as he read how the rich used to dine. A meal typically lasted at least two hours, and each course consisted of between five and 25 dishes. Gentlemen always drank port with dessert, and the women drank sweet wine. For a brief moment, Simeon thought he would love to live like the rich of the 18th century, but the rest of the museum soon put that notion out of his mind.

Admittedly, Simeon felt a bit sceptical when he read John Wesley’s recommendations for a healthy lifestyle. “Abstain from all pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food.” (Simeon eyed his round little belly guiltily.) “Exercise is of greater service to your health than a hundred medicines.” (“But I only have little legs!” exclaimed Simeon.) “Those who read or write much should learn to do it standing.” (“I think not!” declared Simeon.)

The final few rooms of the museum focus on social injustices, particularly those concerning slavery, war, consumerism and politics. Wesley looked to God for inspiration and strength. He wished to promote equal treatment for women, care for animals, offer the best possible education, create a society based on values and not on profits, avoid engaging in wars, live simply and “be content with what plain nature requires”. (“What a good man,” said Simeon, admiringly.)

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Stop Four: Tyntesfield

A week in Bristol is exciting, but sometimes it is nice to get away from the city crowds. So, Simeon travelled eight miles into the countryside to visit an ornate Victorian Gothic house called Tyntesfield and its extensive gardens. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Simeon only had access to a handful of ground floor rooms, which failed to tell him much about the house’s history. Fortunately, Simeon is a resourceful gibbon and has learned everything he wished to know from the National Trust guidebook and website.

The estate, formally known as Tyntes Place, became the possession of William Gibbs (1790-1875) in 1843. (That’s GIBBS, Simeon. Not GIBBON!) Gibbs hired the architect John Norton (1823-1904) to double the size of the house in the High Victorian Gothic style. He also purchased neighbouring estates upon which he built homes for his sons. Following his death, his descendants made a few changes to the interior of the building, for instance, installing electricity and central heating. Richard Gibbs (1928-2001), the last member of the family to live at Tyntesfield, died without an heir and the house was left neglected. In 2002, the National Trust acquired the house and surrounding land. Following an ambitious conservation programme, they restored Tyntesfield to its former glory.

William Gibbs earned his money through guano trade with Spain and South America. Guano, as Simeon is keen to tell you, is the dried excrement of seabirds, a popular fertiliser in the 19th century. Although Gibbs spent a lot of his wealth on Tyntesfield, he also contributed to many charities. Both Gibbs and his wife Matilda Blanche (1817-87) were deeply religious and funded several churches, including the chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Towards the end of his life, Gibbs commissioned Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99) to build a chapel next to Tyntesfield, which the family used for daily prayers and Sunday services.

Simeon entered the house through the cloister, decorated with encaustic tiles. This led through to the centre of the house, designed to create a sense of awe and grandeur. Here, the main staircase leads up to the first-floor family bedrooms, but Simeon could not visit them on this occasion. Fortunately, Simeon was permitted to look in the library, which contains over 2000 books on several subjects such as theology, science, fine art, history, poetry and gardening.

Gardening was a favourite activity of the last inhabitant of Tyntesfield. After William Gibbs died, his son Antony did not continue the family trading business. Instead, he focused on arts and crafts. Likewise, the next heir, George, took a different profession and became an influential politician, earning him the title of 1st Lord Wraxall. By the time Richard Gibbs, 2nd Lord Wraxall became the owner in 1949, the family’s wealth had reduced considerably. After shutting up many rooms, Richard focused on maintaining the estate grounds, particularly the Kitchen Garden.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Kitchen Garden, which continues to grow many fruits and vegetables. The little gibbon also ventured through fields of cows to locate some of the other formal gardens on the estate. His favourite was the rose garden, which ironically contains very few roses. The local deer have eaten most of the roses, but a pink American Pillar rose continues to thrive on the iron pergola.

Stop Five: Floating Harbour

Simeon’s tour of Bristol concludes at the Floating Harbour, which covers 70 acres of the city. It is referred to as “floating” because the water levels remain consistent and are not affected by the tides. Simeon explored the harbour many times on his previous visit to Bristol, but he could not resist a few walks along the water, looking at all the boats.

Naturally, Simeon believes his tour of Bristol is far superior than anyone else’s, as I am sure you agree. Nonetheless, he insisted on travelling on the “Toot Bus” to get a glimpse of all the places he had not the time to visit. Bristol’s sightseeing bus tour starts near the floating harbour then drives up to Bristol Zoo, passing Clifton Down Station along the way. The bus passes under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which Simeon bravely crossed on his last visit.

From the top deck of the bus, Simeon had a view of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, as well as the other boats in the Floating Harbour. Before returning to the first bus stop, the bus drove Simeon to Temple Meads Station, which opened in 1840 as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway – another of Brunel’s inventions. Finally, the bus came to a halt outside Simeon’s apartment, where he indulged in a well-deserved rest.

Of course, a trip would not be complete for Simeon without sampling several restaurants, no matter what John Wesley says about abstaining from rich food – although the New Room’s cafe makes a mean marble cake! For pizza lovers, Simeon recommends The Stable, situated on the harbourside. The laidback restaurant serves up seriously good pizza with a wide range of toppings, alongside pints of beer, cider and crafted drinks.

Another of Simeon’s favourite places to eat is Bar + Block, a steakhouse on King Street. Whilst they specialise in steak, there are plenty of other options on the menu. Other places with large menus include The Berkeley and The Commercial Rooms, both owned by J. D. Wetherspoon. The Berkeley is situated in a former shopping arcade and contains a stained-glass dome and a small whispering gallery. The Commercial Rooms were once a gentlemen’s club and meeting place for the city’s merchants. The foundations were laid in 1810, and the Rooms opened for business the following year. In 1852, following the completion of the Great Western Railway, The Commercial Rooms became the first telegraph office in Bristol. The Rooms were taken over by Wetherspoons in 1995.

Those wishing to experience Bristol’s ultimate fine dining need to visit Browns, housed in a building that once belonged to Bristol Museum. Simeon enjoyed eating in the sophisticated establishment against a backdrop of enormous arched windows and original stone pillars. By the end of the meal, Simeon felt well and truly stuffed – both literally and figuratively. (Don’t expect this treatment all the time, Simeon!)

This concludes Simeon’s tour of Bristol. We hope you have enjoyed the ride. Do come again soon.

Simeon’s Top Tips

  1. Book tickets for the attractions in advance. Most places are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid-19. (Generally, it is best to book to avoid disappointment)
  2. Do not fall in the harbourYou will get very wet.
  3. Watch out for people on bikes and electric scooters. Do not walk in cycle lanes.
  4. Do not feed the animals in the zoo. That is the zookeeper’s job.
  5. Be prepared for lots of walking. Bristol is not very car-friendly.
  6. Watch out for seagulls. They will try to steal your food.
  7. Be prepared for rainPack more than one pair of trousers.
  8. Pace yourself. There is so much to see. It is impossible to do it all in a day.
  9. Do not eat too much pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food. John Wesley would disapprove.
  10. Follow government guidelines regarding Covid-19. They are there for everyone’s safety.

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

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I Object!

Who better to curate an exhibition about dissent than Private Eye editor Ian Hislop (b1960), the most sued man in Britain? Rummaging through the collection at the British Museum, Hislop has uncovered over 100 controversial items revealing physical evidence of past protest. After three years of careful examination, the museum exhibits his findings to the public in a temporary display, I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent.

As editor of the leading satirical current affairs magazine, Ian Hislop is constantly asking whether the stories and supposed facts are true. The majority of objects in the British Museum celebrate the lives of past rulers and societies, often admiring their strengths and successes, however, Hislop was determined to uncover objects that challenged these histories. The exhibition investigates the other side of the story, looking at the downtrodden, the protestors and those with a different point of view.

The exhibition begins with Ian Hislop’s favourite items before going on to explore objects of dissent from all over the world and time. Given the nature of his magazine, it is unsurprising that Hislop was drawn to satirical cartoons, particularly Treason!!! drawn by Richard Newton in 1798. Sketches of this nature are mostly harmless and only mock the subjects depicted rather than physically attack. A few examples of cartoon prints, including this one, make a mockery of the British monarchy in the late Georgian Period.

Newton’s caricature shows a stout, middle-aged man breaking wind at a portrait of King George III (1738-1820), the reigning monarch at the time. The man is labelled “Mr Bull”, referring to John Bull, the name of the national personification of the United Kingdom, England in particular, who was often depicted in political cartoons to represent the nation. George III is the “mad king who lost America” who was intermittently “mad” for the last 11 years of his reign. Although this etching was published before he succumbed to his mental illness, George’s quarrels with his American subjects resulted in the loss of the American Colonies in 1776. This may have contributed to the public’s dislike of the king, prompting magazines to publish satirical images of their “unfit ruler”.

Ian Hislop included a handful of other cartoons from this era, for example, a hand-coloured etching by James Gillray (1756–1815) titled A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion (1792). Gluttony, sexual amorality and avarice were frequent topics for caricaturists during the 18th and 19th century. Gillray attacked the Prince of Wales, later George IV, (1762-1830) with a portrait revealing him to be an obese and ungainly man, surrounded by items that expressed his desires for women, money, drink and food. Whilst this may seem a nasty attack on the royal family, it was widely known that Prince George was frequently bailed out by the government.

“A fantastic, very ancient, small act of rebellion.”

Some of Ian Hislop’s findings date back to the ancient world, objects of which the British Museum has in abundance. Most people would assume that graffiti is a modern issue, however, Hislop found evidence of a piece that is at least 3000 years old. With an estimated date of 1300-1100 BC, an ostracon, or stone fragment from the ancient Egyptian village Deir el-Medina, is defaced with a crude drawing of a sex scene. Whilst this may not show dissent as such, Hislop included this “very silly” object as evidence that people of the past are not much different from people of today.

Another stone, this time dating from 650 BC, contains another form of graffiti. This brick formed part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s (c.634 BC – c.562 BC) Babylonian building and is stamped with his names and title. The brickmaker, however, has cheekily added his own name in Aramaic in the top-right corner. It is not possible to tell what “Zabina’s” intentions were with this small act of rebellion but Hislop likes to think the gesture made the culprit feel good.

42707514_1229925277132806_7316189399589322752_nSticking with the theme of ancient wall graffiti, Hislop included a primitive example of wall art from the Post-Catatonic era amongst his favourite objects. The accompanying description states that the image is thought to depict an early man venturing towards his “out-of-town hunting grounds”. If the shopping trolley in the drawing and the term “Post-Catatonic” has not triggered alarm bells, the name of the primaeval artist “Banksymus Maximus” is a dead giveaway that the item is a fake.

The wall art or Peckham Rock, as it is now known, was created by the anonymous street artist Banksy. Although the style of art may resemble those found in caverns, this hoax cave painting was produced with a marker pen on a piece of concrete. Whilst clearly a fake, it is the story behind its creation that earns it a place in the I Object exhibition. In 2005, the artist secretly installed the stone in one of the British Museum galleries where it remained undiscovered for a number of days. Although amusing, Banksy was, in some way, ridiculing ancient artefacts.

Frequently, religion has caused wars and unrest throughout the ages, a fact that is evidenced many times throughout this exhibition. Whether being forced to worship a god they do not believe in or, alternatively, being banned from worshipping one they do, people have responded in a number of different ways.

After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547) banned the Catholic faith, going as far as to execute those who refused or tried to continue to worship in secret. Many Catholic relics and buildings were destroyed during this period of time, however, some had the foresight to hide or bury their belongings for safety. As a result of this, numerous Catholic artefacts still exist, as evidenced in the display cases of the exhibition.

Ian Hislop’s favourite example of Catholic dissidence is the Stonyhurst Salt. To the untrained eye, it looks like an elaborate, but secular, salt-cellar, however, it was made out of recycled fragments of religious reliquaries. As well as using the silver from the church plate, embellishments were added to emphasise its religious connotation. Silver and crystal may have been used to symbolise Christ’s purity, and the rubies and garnets, Christ’s blood.

By disguising items in this way, Catholics were silently protesting against Henry VIII’s rules. Although at risk of arrest or death, these Catholic dissenters helped to preserve a part of English history, as well as amuse Ian Hislop. “I can imagine the rich (and obviously Catholic) owners of this object saying to their guests, ‘of course, Catholicism has been banned, we wouldn’t dream of having such items of Catholic worship here. By the way, this is a salt-cellar – would you like some?’”

The other religious object Ian Hislop draws attention to is known as the “Wicked Bible”. Published in 1631 under the names of Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, this edition of the King James Bible earned its name due to a printing error that changed the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) to “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Printing errors are common and this could be the case of an unfortunate slip, however, Hislop remains unconvinced. He thinks it is a rather big coincidence that the printing error just happened to be in that particular verse. Nonetheless, regardless of the circumstances, the publishers were fined £300.

If it is not religion, it is politics that becomes the target of ridicule and objection. There is no politician in existence, past or present, that has been loved and admired by everyone. General elections prove the point with debates and demonstrations that attempt to encourage people to “vote yes”, “vote remain”, “dump Trump” and so forth. These, however, are loud messages to the world but Hislop has uncovered quiet, even subliminal, methods.

Many countries acknowledge the commercial holiday Halloween, where tradition claims spirits of the dead come to visit on the eve of All Saints Day. No country celebrates this idea more than Mexico with their three-day festival Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Amongst other things, members of the public decorate cemeteries with bright coloured flowers and calavera or skull shapes. Mexican newspapers often dedicate cartoon skeletons to public figures in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican political illustrator.

As part of the I Object exhibition, Hislop has included two skeleton papier mâché figures used in celebrations from the 1980s. Day of the Dead has been celebrated for centuries, however, in its modern manifestation, the festival has become an opportunity to mock traditional hierarchies and authority figures. One of the figures represents a corrupt factory owner and the other ridicules Uncle Sam the personification of the American government.

This year, with the anniversary of female emancipation, the “votes for women” penny coin has become highly recognisable throughout the country. With the advent of social media, it is now easy to spread a message or opinion, however, in the early 1900s, people had other methods of expressing their thoughts across the nation. By stamping this slogan on one penny coins, suffragettes ensured hundreds of people would carry their messages in their own purses.

The suffragettes were not the first group of protestors to use defaced coins in their campaigns; the exhibition displays a few coins from other eras. The earliest example comes from 1797, which shows an engraving of a hanging man and the words “The Pope” on one side of a one penny coin. Although not certain, this could be interpreted as support for Napoleon Bonapart (1769-1821) who had imprisoned two popes during the French Revolution.

Nowadays, coins are no longer used to spread messages throughout the country, however, a few people have resorted to writing on paper notes. Examples from the USA and Britain, including a £20 note sporting the words “Stay in the EU”, reveal the strong opinions of an individual. Unlike the coins, which were cheaper and less costly to produce, there are unlikely to be many duplicates of these defaced notes, therefore, this method of protest is less effective.

Whilst defacing a paper note may not draw much attention, a rogue engraver managed to place permanent messages in the 10 and 50 rupee notes in Seychelles. Although not easy to see unless you are looking, the artist has hidden the words “scum” and “sex” within the design. It is not clear what the anonymous engraver aimed to achieve but, as Ian Hislop says, “This is so childish that it made me laugh.”

Many of the objects in the exhibition, such as these rupees, have hidden messages, which were less easily discovered, thus protecting the culprits from punishment. These concealed acts of resistance allow people to register their own protest and opinions in the safety of their own homes. In some ways, it is a method of coping for those who feel oppressed by those in power. On the other hand, some choose to be extremely vocal and expressive about their opinions.

Throughout time, people have taken to the streets in protest for all sorts of reasons. Within the past century, hundreds of marches have taken place in cities around the world demanding equality, peace, retribution and so forth. Many of these protests develop their own slogan and branding, which are displayed on banners and placards, however, some people go as far as to express their opinion with their clothing.

Hislop has included old and modern examples of clothing that expressed the views of the wearer. One of the oldest of these is a ring containing the portrait of Charles I (1600-49), worn by supporters of the king during the war against parliament. A silk garter, from 1745, also expressed an opinion about royalty. The wearer of the garter expressed his support for Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), known as “Bonny Prince Charlie”, with an embroidered statement: “God bless PC and down with rump.” Prince Charlie attempted to reclaim the English throne for the House of Stuart during the Jacobite rebellion. “Rump” referred to parliament, the same parliament who had beheaded Charles I, also a Stuart.

When going to an exhibition at the British Museum, it is the expectation that the items on display will be fairly old, however, a few contemporary examples of dissent have found their way into the exhibition. Although not an item of clothing, a bright yellow umbrella featuring lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine, hangs from the wall of the gallery. This belongs to the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong where students and other members of the public demonstrated outside government headquarters for genuine universal suffrage. In order to control the crowds, police used tactics such as tear gas, however, this did not deter the outraged protestors.

Protestors were quick to invent ways of protecting themselves from police tear gas raids by equipping themselves with umbrellas to shelter their faces. Whilst this began as a means of protection, the idea quickly caught on, and the umbrella became a symbol of the protest. Soon, branded yellow umbrellas were available and by merely holding one, people visually associated themselves with the movement.

“I’m quite pro-dissent. I think it leads to a healthier world.”
– Ian Hislop, 2018

Throughout the exhibition, Ian Hislop provides his observations and opinions about the objects he uncovered in written speech bubbles alongside general information about the items. This helps visitors make sense of the various forms of dissent and understand why Hislop felt it necessary to share with the public. Hislop greatly admires many of the people behind the ideas shown, stating, “I have spent my life risking no more than the odd libel writ or fine. I’m always impressed by people in other societies and in the past who have done this for real, risking their lives, livelihoods, places and families in order just to say ‘No’.”

It is easy to see why Hislop was so interested in these 100 or so objects, however, seeing them all at once with very little time to process information, becomes rather overwhelming for visitors. The exhibition is not set out in a clear order, leaving people confused about which sections to view first, often leading to clashes of people coming from opposite directions. From the entrance, perplexed visitors pass five objects and find themselves at the exit wondering where to go next. Incidentally, these five objects are Ian Hislop’s favourite items in the entire exhibition and, therefore, the best bits.

Ian Hislop set out to discover truths and opposing opinions, in which he has ultimately succeeded. His enthusiasm for his findings is clear throughout his commentary and it is, admittedly, interesting to discover the various methods of dissent employed throughout history. Many of the items look “normal” without explanation, however, their creators have been very clever and inventive. The exhibition raises questions about the history taught in schools and the true version of events.

I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent remains open to the public until 20th January 2019.  Tickets are £12 per adult and photographs may be taken throughout the visit. Under 16s may visit for free, however, some of the content is unsuitable for young children. 

The Graffiti Issue

Writing and drawing on walls is nothing new; it dates back to prehistoric times when cavemen invented the first form of visual/written communication. Nowadays there is a completely different stance on this form of expression – graffiti.

“Graffiti” means writing, drawing or scratching on a wall or public area, a custom that has been forbidden by the government. One of the main purposes of this practice is to state “I was here” by tagging a personal symbol or phrase; somewhat similar to animals urinating on objects to state their territory. These days it is seen as an act of vandalism and it is not unusual to see industrial buildings covered in colourful spray paint. Graffiti artists tend to target dark, secluded areas, for instance alley ways and places that youths tend to congregate.

Presumed to be a young person thing, graffiti is used to intimidate the authorities attempting to control teenagers, causing them to rebel and express themselves in this forbidden manner. Although it is disrespectful to private properties, the artists/taggers are undeterred especially as they can remain completely anonymous.

The introduction of the hip-hop scene at the beginning of the 1970s influenced the rise in graffiti artists, thus causing this vandalism to be associated with loud, noisy music, protestations and youngsters causing trouble. Graffiti is essentially a crime, however in recent years it has become an element of cultural appropriation often used by artists and designers when targeting audiences of a particular age group, i.e. teenagers. It is here that the definition of graffiti begins to blur.

Some may argue that graffiti has become an art form, but is it still entitled to have that name if it is produced for a commercial purpose? After all it is no longer illegal if it is being used to advertise a company or decorate a nightclub or some such.

Most people will have heard of the English graffiti activist Banksy, who has yet to be identified. He paints images with a political and social message onto public walls and visible surfaces. Many of his creations have been removed or destroyed due to the illegal choice of canvas for his detailed stencil paintings. Those that have not been taken down by unimpressed communities have ended up being sold for tens of thousands of pounds.This surely legalises the “vandalism” turning it into street art and dismissing the term graffiti? There have also been exhibitions of Banksy’s works, which after being taken away from their original location defeats their initial purpose and turns them into a commodity rather than a political statement.

It would be possible to argue for hours over what is graffiti and what is not. Entire books could be written on the subject without forming a conclusion. What it comes down to is personal opinion. Depending on the generation people were bought up in, their backgrounds and culture, graffiti means something different to everyone.

Instead of trying to find an answer, let’s play a game. Look at the following photographs and decide what is graffiti and what is art. There are no right or wrong answers, so everyone is a winner!

Ready? Graffiti or art. Discuss.

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