Buddhism: Morality, Wisdom & Meditation

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Types of Buddhism in Asia

With over 500 million followers, Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. Approximately 300,000 of these followers live in the United Kingdom alone, however, the majority live in contemporary Asia with the highest numbers in China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. Until 23rd February 2020, the British Library is exploring the spread of Buddhism, its philosophy, and practice with an exhibition containing manuscripts and artefacts, including rare treasures such as 2000-year-old scrolls and books. Full of inciteful information, the British Library breaks down the three types of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana; and reveals the consistency of the religion since the 6th century BCE.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are welcomed by the sounds of the natural world, which is a major theme within Buddhism. The songs and noises of cicadas, amphibians, oriental magpie robins and gentle streams set the scene for the first quarter of the exhibition, which focuses on the Buddha.

Born 2500 years ago in Lumbini in modern-day Nepal, the historical Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. His mother, Queen Maya, passed away seven days after his birth and he was raised by his aunt, Prajapati Gotami. His father, King Shuddhodana, arranged tutors to teach his son in the palace and kept all troubles and hard work away from Siddhartha. The king showered luxuries on his son, providing him with everything he could want. A prophecy stated that if Siddhartha left the palace he would become a religious leader, however, if he remained inside, he would grow up to become a great king. Naturally, King Shuddhodana wished his heir to be a strong and powerful leader, therefore, used his wealth to make sure his son would never want to leave the palace.

As well as all the luxuries, when Siddhartha turned 16, his father found him a wife, Yashodhara, and they soon had a son, Rahula. Yet, despite the comfortable, rich lifestyle, Siddhartha yearned to see what life was like outside of the palace.

The life of Prince Siddhartha is recorded in two Sanskrit scriptures: Buddhacarita and Lalitavistara Sutra. Both describe Siddhartha’s childhood of luxury beginning before he was born when his mother dreamt of a white elephant. Some legends say that when Siddhartha was born, he took seven steps forward and at each step, a lotus flower appeared where his foot had been. He then announced that this was his last birth, implying he had been reincarnated several times. In one of his previous lives, it is believed he was an elephant.

Desperate to escape the confines of the palace, the young adult Siddhartha went on four journeys where he saw “four great sights”. Whether or not Siddhartha got out of the palace against his father’s will is debated but the things he saw on the trips changed his life forever. The four great sights were an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man with no home. The knowledge of these forms of suffering made Siddhartha sad that he lived in such comfort when others did not. From that moment onwards, he decided to reject extravagant luxuries.

The British Library displays several illuminated pages from two manuscripts showing the story of Prince Siddartha. One volume was produced in China and the other in Burma, however, they both tell of the same events. In one picture, Prince Siddartha takes a final look at his sleeping wife and new-born son before leaving the palace on horseback. At the age of 20, Siddhartha had become a leader of the Shakya clan who were by tradition sun worshippers, however, they soon fell out with another clan and proposed a war. Siddhartha, averse to causing people to suffer, opposed this proposal and was given an ultimatum by the clan: stay and fight or leave the country and never see his family again. At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his family, his home, and his land.

The illustrations show that Prince Siddhartha became a monk and ordered his charioteer to return to the palace and inform his family that he was well. Naturally, the king tried to entice Siddhartha back by offering half his kingdom, however, Siddhartha refused, saying he had renounced worldly life. In one of the images, Prince Siddhartha is shown receiving the eight requisites of a monk: three yellow robes, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, a water strainer and a girdle.

Like many holy men at the time, Siddhartha was an ascetic, denying himself worldly pleasures for religion and spirituality. Siddhartha may have joined a group of Jains who, amongst other things, practiced self-denial and caused themselves to suffer. They believed this would free their soul from pain and sadness. Acts of self-denial may have included eating only six grains of rice a day, holding one’s breath for considerable lengths of time, and allowing the body to become so thin as to be on the verge of death. Despite partaking in this type of ritual, Siddhartha remained unsatisfied.

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Shakyamuni Buddha

Believing there was a better way to free the soul that did not involve hurting himself, Siddhartha decided to leave the monks. He found a large fig tree and decided to meditate under it. Determined not to leave the spot until he had found enlightenment, Siddhartha meditated for 49 days. During this time, his mind is said to have become pure. After practising this for a total of six years, Siddhartha became enlightened. He had become a Buddha.

The tree under which Siddhartha had meditated is known as the Bodhi Tree. Bodhi is the Sanskrit word for enlightenment, which refers to a full awakening where all limitations have been moved from the mind. The original tree is believed to have stood at the site of the Mahabodhi Temple in India. Whenever the tree was destroyed or died it was replaced by a new Bodhi tree. Saplings from the various trees have been taken to other places in India, such as Sravasti and Chennai, and across the world to Sri Lanka, Hawaii and California.

The manuscripts continue to document Siddhartha or the Buddha’s life after becoming enlightened. The Buddha now understood the purpose of suffering and how to defeat suffering. His answer was known as the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha – in life there is suffering whether we want it or not
  2. Samudaya – there is a reason for the suffering in the world
  3. Nirodha – people can be free from suffering when they no longer want things
  4. Magga – to stop wanting things, one must follow the Noble Eightfold Path
    1. Right Vision. A person should try to see things the way they really are
    2. Right Values. A person should try to turn their mind away from the world and towards the Dharma (cosmic law)
    3. Right Speech. A person should try to be truthful and kind when they talk
    4. Right Actions. A person should try to do good things. If they can not do a good thing, then they should try to not do a bad thing
    5. Right Livelihood. A person should not work at something that can hurt themselves or other people
    6. Right Effort. A person should try to increase their goodness and get rid of their evil
    7. Right Mindfulness. A person must remember the Dharma and use it all the time
    8. Right Meditation. A person must try to reach enlightenment through meditation

The illuminated manuscripts shows the Buddha teaching the Dharma to his disciples and other followers. Although he is occasionally depicted on a throne, he never pretended to be a god. He considered himself to be a man who had discovered the meaning of life and walked across Nepal and parts of India to teach people what he believed. For over 40 years he preached about enlightenment and started a Sangha – a group of Buddhist monks and nuns.

The Buddha lived to the age of 80 when he suffered a severe attack of dysentery. As seen in the illustrations, the Buddha consoled his most devoted disciple Ananda then called all his disciples together for one final message. He urged them to continue to follow the Four Noble Truths then passed away; or as the British Library describes it, he entered “Parinirvana, the final passage into Nirvana (liberation from the cycle of rebirth).” His death is remembered on the day of the full moon in May.

The Buddha’s body was cremated and enshrined in stupas (a type of reliquary), which were distributed across north India. Under the rule of Emperor Ashoka in 250 BCE, they were taken further afield to promote the spread of Buddhism. Later, during a war, the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka for safety. Every year a 15-day festival is held in memory of this event. The Sacred Tooth Relic procession includes a procession of elephants.

“You yourselves must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.”
Magga-vagga (The Path), Sutra Pitaka

Unlike western religions where there is only one God, the concept of being a Buddha is available to anyone who obtains enlightenment. Enlightenment is central to Buddhist philosophy, however, the path is not straight forward. The historical Buddha went through dozens of lives before he was born as Prince Siddhartha where he finally obtained enlightenment. Stories of the previous lives of the Buddha have been illustrated in manuscripts known as Jātakas (Birth Stories), of which a handful are displayed in the Library’s exhibition. Each story represents one of the virtues or qualities of a Buddha.

The Jātaka tales claim the Buddha lived 547 lives before coming to the end of his spiritual path. The final ten lives are generally considered to be the most important because they illustrate the Great Paramita (perfections) of a Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). In one previous incarnation, the Bodhisattva was an elephant who stood over a skylark nest to protect the birds. Unfortunately, an evil elephant arrived and destroyed the nest, however, the skylark, with the help of a crow, a fly and a frog, destroyed him. Despite being small and powerless, they caused the death of a powerful elephant.

In another incarnation, the Buddha was a golden stag who found himself caught in a hunter’s trap. His mate offered her life to the hunter in place of the stag’s, which so moved the hunter that he spared both of their lives.

The previous lives of the Buddha have different importance between Buddhist’s sects. There are three main divisions of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Since the Buddha’s death, differing opinions have arisen concerning the correct teachings and practices of Buddhism. Theravada, meaning “way of the elders” is the oldest of the three traditions and states the best way to attain nirvana is to be a monk or nun and partake in regular meditation. They believe the path to enlightenment is a personal journey and is an individual experience. Mahayana, on the other hand, teaches people can help each other to gain enlightenment. It is not necessary to be a monk or nun but Bodhisattvas can work together to attain nirvana. The third tradition, Vajrayana, follows the majority of the Mahayana teachings, however, also believes it is possible to reach nirvana in a single lifetime.

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Twenty-Eight Buddhas

In the Theravada tradition, it is believed that twenty-eight Buddhas have attained nirvana. The history of these Buddhas is recorded in a text known as the Buddhavamsa. Although he is the most famous, Prince Siddhartha was the fourth Buddha. Preceding him were Kakusanda, Konagama and Kassapa. Despite living unique lives, each Buddha achieved enlightenment in the shadow of a particular tree.

In Buddhism, life is regarded as a series of impermanent manifestations; everything is subject to change. Although it is possible to be both a Buddhist and belong to another religion, Buddhism does not encourage belief in a creator or single deity. Buddhism incorporates cosmological theories that describe 31 realms of existence within the cycle of Samsara (rebirth). The Sutra of the Ten Kings describes the ten stages the soul passes through after death before reaching one of six forms of rebirth: hell, ghosts, wild animals, domestic animals, humans and Buddhas. Other traditions have slightly different forms of rebirth but they all agree there are a total of six. There are also 31 realms of existence: 4 formless realms, 16 pure form realms, 6 celestial realms, 1 human realm, 1 realm of jealous demi-gods and demons, 1 animal realm, 1 realm of hungry ghosts, and 1 realm of the underworld or hell.

The teachings of the Buddha were not written down during his lifetime, which is the prime reason for the different traditions that have formed. The oldest collection of Buddhist scriptures date back to over 2000 years ago, however, by then different opinions had already formed. Each Buddhist tradition has its own set of texts that differ in contents and number. A complete set of scriptures ranges between 40 to over 200 volumes depending on the particular division.

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Gandhāran Scroll

The British Library displays a variety of scrolls and manuscripts containing Buddhist texts. Dating from the 1st century CE is a fragment of the Gandhāran scrolls, which are among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. Written in black ink on birch bark, these scrolls demonstrate a range of Buddhist genres and styles, including poetry and stories. The kingdom of Gandhāra encompassed several cultures, for instance, Indian, Asian, Iranian, Greek and Roman, therefore, these scrolls were an important method of spreading the word of Buddhism between different societies.
Amongst the other manuscripts in the exhibition are the Kanjur: a Tibetan Buddhist canon containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Verses, the Sankhara: a commentary on the higher teachings, the Lotus Sutra: an influential Mahayana scripture, the Amitabha Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. The latter is written as a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti. It explains that people are intrinsically empty “like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow”. The Buddha is trying to help his disciple unlearn his preconceived notions of reality. An accompanying quote from the American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (b.1936) emphasises this idea:

“The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
Pema Chödrön, 1991

As the exhibition reaches the halfway mark, the soundscape shifts from the natural world to audio recordings of rituals, ceremonies and the everyday lives of Buddhist communities across a range of geographic locations. This includes prayers being said in India, a ceremony in Cambodia, monks playing the drums in Laos and various recordings from China and Japan. These sounds signal the end of the Buddha and Buddhist Philosophy sections of the exhibition and the beginning of the Spread of Buddhism.

The spread of the Buddha’s teachings coincides with the adaptation of writing systems and printing techniques, which allowed Buddhist scriptures to reach more people than oral accounts could achieve. The manuscripts were also translated from the original Sanskrit into local languages across Asia, allowing a greater population to become familiar with Buddhism.


In the Theravada tradition, Buddhist scriptures were usually inscribed on carefully prepared palm leaves and held together by a cord. A carved wooden cover was attached either side to protect the fragile leaves, turning the manuscript into an early form of a book. This is known as pothi. Ink made from soot and plant oils was applied with a metal stylus. This technique was used up until the early 20th century. Other materials were also used, although very rare, for example, gold and silver plates. The British Library also displays a pothi made from ivory.
Folded and bound paper books came much later, however, they were still individually written by hand. This was usually done by a Buddhist monk who would use a special calligraphy set consisting of brushes, paperweights, ink sticks, ink stones, seals and seal paste. Although tradition is a very important aspect of Buddhism, monks are not afraid to embrace new technologies, therefore, by the 6th century CE, manuscripts were being mass-produced using wood-block printing. As a result, Buddhism began to spread more rapidly across the continent.

The British Library is fortunate that so many of these early manuscripts have survived to date. This is largely thanks to the monastic libraries that played and continue to play a central role in Buddhist education. Due to the Asian climate, the fragile manuscripts needed to be stored carefully to avoid damage from the changing weather, humidity, mould, insects and rodents. Special furniture and containers were designed specifically to hold these scrolls and books.

“When the mind is not trained, it is like a monkey. Meditation helps you focus.”
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 2018


The final section of the exhibition focuses on Buddhist practices, particularly the lives of monks. Buddhist life revolves around Karuna (compassion) and Metta (loving-kindness), which are to be expressed through behaviour and generosity to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhists must reject natural egotism and self-centeredness to demonstrate these practices. Buddhists achieve states of awareness and mindfulness by participating in meditation, which heightens concentration and insight. Mantras and chanting help to focus the mind and protect it from negative thoughts. Many of these techniques have been incorporated into everyday non-Buddhist life through activities such as yoga.

Although many Buddhists do not believe in the notion of gods, they use a variety of shrines. Many of these are used in ceremonies and often depict the historical Buddha, however, there are a few that are reserved for specific practices. The shrine of Jizō Bosatsu from Japan, for example, is a representation of the guardian and saviour of the dying, deceased and stillborn. The shrine, therefore, is used only when appropriate.

Portable shrines, such as amulet boxes, offer the bearer protection when travelling. An example on display is ornately decorated and contains a small window where a figurine or picture of a respected lama (teacher) could be displayed. Inside the box, Buddhists keep items that are deemed to carry blessings.

Buddhists occasionally wear protective clothing, such as a silk jacket, that they believe will protect them from physical and spiritual harm. The clothing is usually adorned with hand-drawn images and written texts from Buddhist mantras.
Emphasised by the figure of Sitatārā or White Tara, both males and females can receive enlightenment. Although Buddhist monks seem to be more common than Buddhist nuns, Buddhism is not a religion that alienates anyone based on gender. They believe everyone can reach nirvana if they strive hard enough.

Visitors are invited to strike a gong on exiting the room in a similar way one might exit a Buddhist monastery. Thus ends the multi-sensory exhibition. Decorated with red drapes and walls, the exhibition room resembles a contemporary Buddhist monastery or temple. Low lighting emphasises the preciousness of the artefacts and manuscripts plus causes people to talk in respectfully hushed voices. With so much information accompanying all the exhibits, the British Library has done a phenomenal job piecing together the exhibition.

The Buddhism exhibition is open until 23rd February 2020. Tickets are priced at £14 although concessions are available.

Jewish Britain

Founded in 1932 by Professor Cecil Roth (1899-1970), Alfred Rubens (1903-98) and Wilfred Samuel (1886-1958), The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. Featuring objects from all areas of Jewish life, the museum in Camden, London explores the public and private lives of communities throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. With both temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum focuses on Jewish traditions and ceremonies, and the history of Jewish life in Britain: Judaism: A Living Faith and Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

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Mikveh

Before visitors reach either of the two main galleries, they are introduced to the oldest exhibit in the museum. Built into the floor is a mid-13th-century mikveh, which had been discovered by archaeologists on a London building site in 2001. A mikveh is a type of bath used for ritual cleansing as part of many ceremonies and Jewish traditions. For instance, in Judaism, menstruation is regarded as unclean, therefore, women must visit the mikvah once a month. Men, on the other hand, can have a ritual cleansing before holy occasions, e.g. the Sabbath or an annual festival. The bath is also used prior to marriage, after childbirth and as the closing stage of converting to Judaism.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world that is still practised today. The religion can be traced back over 4000 years, as far as the biblical land of Israel. Jewish societies consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, who established the belief in one God – a belief now shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As recorded in the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon (c.990-c.931 BCE) built the First Temple in Jerusalem in approximately 960 BCE, which became a religious centre for Jewish people. Centuries later in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into captivity. For the first time, the Jews were moved out of Israel.

Eventually, the Jewish population returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, however, it resulted in a similar fate. In 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who were in power at the time, resulting in many Jews fleeing the land of Israel in search of safe homes elsewhere. Thus, Judaism began to spread around the world.

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The main teachings of Judaism can be found in the Torah, the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Bible: Genesis (Bəreshit), Exodus (Shəmot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bəmidbar), and Deuteronomy (Dəvarim). These contain 613 commandments that form the basis of the religion. Although Jewish customs have altered over time as they spread themselves out over the world, all Jewish communities use the Hebrew language of the Torah during prayers and celebrations.

On entering Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors come face to face with a Torah scroll attached to 19th-century silver rollers. Scrolls such as these are the most precious object within any Jewish community and are used regularly during services in the synagogue. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the parchment scroll reads from right to left and would have been written by a scribe with a special quill and ink. After production, the scroll is considered to be holy and must not be touched with bare hands. In order to help people read the tiny script, they may use a yad (pointer) to keep their place.

The Jewish Museum owns a large number of Jewish objects from various locations and centuries, however, many of them are used for the same purposes despite the variation in their design. Take, for example, the ornaments that decorate the tops of the Torah rollers. These rimmonim, which literally means pomegranates, are all styled to resemble the fruit. Pomegranates are an important symbol in Judaism due to the misconception in rabbinic tradition that the fruit contains 613 seeds – the same number of commandments. Despite being inspired by the pomegranate, the designers have interpreted this in unique, contrasting ways. Whilst a 19th-century rimmonim from North Africa may be made of wood and decorated with paint, another may be silver and contain a number of bells.

Other objects of various design include spice containers and kiddush cups. Spices, which are used during ceremonies on the Sabbath, are kept in special, decorative containers that are shaped to resemble towers, often inspired by local architecture. An example from Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany contains illustrations and gems as well as elaborate silver metal work. Similarly, the kiddush cups are also used on the Sabbath and are usually made from silver. An example from 19th-century England, however, was made from the shell of a coconut and carved with biblical scenes and Hebrew verses.

The life of an Observant Jew involves praying three times a day, including the Shema, the most important prayer. In order to say the Shema, which takes place in the morning and evening, a tzitzit (tassels) and tefillin (small boxes) must be worn, and a mezuzah (decorative scroll case) attached to the doorpost. These are items that remind the Jews of God’s presence and examples can be found in the museum.

When a male child is born, he is circumcised at eight days old and named during the ceremony. Baby girls, however, are given their names during a ceremony at the synagogue. The children are brought up to follow strict Jewish rules, for instance, only eating food that is kosher (fit to eat) and to attend the synagogue for the main Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. Later, at the age of thirteen, boys celebrate their barmitzvah (son of the commandment) and, at twelve, girls become batmitzvah. After these ceremonies, they are considered adults and, therefore, are expected to take responsibility for their own faiths.

Marriage ceremonies must also be performed as written in Jewish law. Wedding ceremonies take place under a huppah (canopy), a sheet supported by four poles, and the ketubah (“written thing”; marriage contract) is read and signed. This outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to his bride.

Even with death, rules must be followed precisely. The body must be buried as soon as possible – cremation is a big no-no because the body is the “temple of the soul” – and relations must remain at home for a mourning period of seven days (shiva). Due to Jewish customs, the dead are never forgotten. Every year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a memorial prayer is said and a candle is lit.

The main Jewish community centre in the synagogue is where not only prayer and worship occur, but education, celebrations and social events too. Originally based on the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural appearances of synagogues have altered over time and vary from place to place, however, some things remain consistent. In Britain, synagogues should be built facing east towards Jerusalem and it is forbidden to display images of God within the building.

Another common feature is an Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, and a ner tamid (eternal light), which hangs above it. The Jewish Museum owns a beautiful example of 17th-century Ark that is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. Made from walnut, it is decorated with marbled paintwork and Jewish symbols. A Hebrew inscription at the top reads, “Know before whom you stand.”

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A model of the interior of a synagogue helps visitors visualise Jewish services. This exhibit is child-friendly and people are encouraged to find the Ark, the ner tamid and the bimah (a desk that the Torah scrolls are read from).

Within Judaism, there are different religious groups who follow a mix of traditions. In Orthodox synagogues, the rules are strict: men and women are not allowed to sit together and may be separated by a mechitza (screen); the rabbi is always male. In Reform and Liberal synagogues, however, people are free to sit wherever they choose and, in some instances, the rabbi is female.

Whilst it is the centre of Jewish religion, not all worship takes place in the synagogue. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created the world in six days and “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The Jews call the seventh day Shabbat (the Sabbath) and believe it is a time of rest for everyone. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating what he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday night. During this time, families and friends come together to relax and pray, often sharing a meal. The museum has set up a table with important objects and place settings so that non-Jewish visitors can get a sense of the peaceful atmosphere that is felt during this time of worship.

As with any religion, there are several Jewish festivals throughout the year. Most of them, at least by name, will be familiar to visitors, however, what they involve and the objects used may not. In the winter, while the majority of the world is preparing for Christmas – a holiday Observant Jews do not partake – Jewish societies are celebrating Hanukah, the winter festival of light. This festival observes the spiritual survival of the Jews under Syrian Greek rule in 165 BCE. Jewish practices were banned and the Greeks began worshipping their own idols in the Temple. In retaliation, a group of Jewish rebel warriors known as the Maccabees fought back and reclaimed the Temple. Naturally, much of the Temple had been damaged, however, the Maccabees were able to find enough oil to keep the menorah (candelabrum) alight for one day. Yet the menorah did not burn out as expected; it lasted for eight days by which time more oil had been sourced.

The Jews remember this miracle by celebrating an eight-day annual festival, which involves candle lighting and prayers every evening. Hanukah lamps, similar in style to the seven-branched menorah in the synagogue, have eight candles to represent the eight days the Maccabee’s menorah stayed alight. Also at this time, children receive gifts and everyone feasts on oily food, for instance, doughnuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes).

In the early spring, the Jewish celebrate Purim in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue followed by fancy dress parties, plays and plenty of food and drink.

One of the most important Jewish festivals of the year is Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus. The well-known story recounts the experience of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt then, after God sent ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free them, were led across the Red Sea by the prophet Moses. The Torah states that this story must be told to each generation, therefore, an eight-day festival is given annually for this purpose. During this time, people eat matzah, a form of unleavened bread, as a reminder of the flatbread the Israelites ate on their journey out of Egypt. During this period, leavened bread (hametz) or any food containing yeast is forbidden.

The history of Jews in Britain begins in roughly 1066 following the Norman invasion, which put William the Conqueror (1028-87) on the throne. The largest Jewish community settled in London, however, the law forbade them from owning land. Many Jews became moneylenders, which was a position that was forbidden to Christians at the time. Despite this, a Jewish name, Manasses, appears in the Domesday Book, a land survey commissioned in 1086.

More Jews arrived in England after the first Crusade, which took place between 1095 and 1099. This was the first attempt by Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. As a result, the Jewish community in London grew and by 1130, the Great Synagogue was founded in the Jewish quarter of London. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jewish population and in 1144 the first European blood libel occurred in Norwich. By 1190, Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, however, many decided to commit suicide instead.

Despite King John (1166-1216) granting Jews the right to live in England, he made their lives difficult by imposing huge taxes on their communities. In 1218, Henry III (1207-72) ordered that all Jews should wear a badge (sound familiar?) and attempted to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1278, hundreds of Jews were accused of coin clipping resulting in the execution of more than 200 people.

By 1290, Edward I (1239-1307) had decreed that all Jews should leave England and have all their property confiscated. Nonetheless, there were still Jews in the country by the time the Tudor monarchs were on the throne. In fact, Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) most trusted physician was Rodrigo Lopez (1517-94), a Portuguese Jew (although he had converted to Catholicism). Unfortunately, he was later accused of treason and hung, drawn and quartered in 1594, an execution that was witnessed by a massive crowd who mocked him for being a Jew. It is believed that Lopez was Shakespeare‘s inspiration for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It was not until 1656, with England being ruled by parliament, that Jews began to be welcomed back by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), although more for economic reasons than anything else. Nonetheless, the Jewish community once again began to grow, first with an influx of Sephardim Jews (from Spain and Portugal), shortly followed by Ashkenazim Jews (from Germany and Poland).

The end of the 18th-century saw Jews spread over all areas of society. They were particularly popular within the theatres as both performers and managers. Plays were often performed in Yiddish, a language spoken by most Central and Eastern European Jews. Plays ranged from comedies to tragedies, featuring folk tales, stories based on true life and adaptations of Shakespeare. The museum has a number of theatre posters on display as well as the opportunity to dress up in some of the clothing worn at the time, including a top hat.

Of course, Jews still faced discrimination, as did anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. In 1753, the “Jew Bill” allowing Jewish immigrants to become British subjects was repealed due to public outcry, however, protests during the 19th-century changed this. By 1874, Britain had its first Jewish-born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), although he had converted to Christianity as a child.

Although Jews were finding acceptance in Britain, they were not so lucky in other European countries. In Russia and Poland, Jews were severely restricted in terms of occupation and housing, therefore, many were living in poverty. Due to the violence targetted at them, over two million Jews left their homes to seek a better life, 150,000 of whom arrived on British soil.

Those who already had relatives in Britain were able to move in with their families, however, the majority of the migrants were complete strangers, starving and penniless. As a result, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up in London to provide food and a safe shelter for the immigrants whilst they searched for jobs and homes. The museum has an example of a deed box that Jews were invited to place their valuables for safekeeping.

The Jewish Museum explains how the new arrivals gradually began to fit into British society. Jewish schools and hospitals were set up as well as synagogues, which helped to make the Jews feel more at home in this foreign country. By the outbreak of World War One, the Jewish communities were as patriotic as the rest of the country and as many as 50,000 Jews served within the British armed forces.

War is difficult for everyone, but the Jews who joined the British ranks had another challenge on their hands. Britain was on the same side as Russia, the country many Jews had fled from. This caused friction within Jewish communities, however, the soldiers were welcomed back as heroes. Some of the Jews who fought in the war also received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

The 1930s brought more European Jews to England due to the growing power of Nazism in Germany. 10,000 children arrived via Kindertransport, which the Museum had a temporary exhibition about at the beginning of the year (2019). As everyone should know, thousands of Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany due to the policies of party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Holocaust caused the death of 6 million European Jews and it is estimated that in total, 17,000 million people fell victim to the Second World War. A survivor’s account of his time in a concentration camp is the main focus of a small exhibition within the museum.

“We are all human beings, whatever colour or race we are, everybody deserves respect.”
Ann Kirk, Kindertransport refugee

The Jewish Museum may not be on many people’s radar, however, it is an important museum to have in London. Non-religious people tend to shy away from things labelled “Jewish”, not due to discrimination, but because they think it is something only for Jewish people. This museum, however, is for everyone. It provides an eye-opening history of the Jewish religion as well as a shocking record of Jewish life in Britain. Whilst the Holocaust plays a large part in Jewish history, there is so much prior to that of which the majority of the British population will be unaware. There is information in this Museum that will never be taught in schools. After all, it is the winners that write the history books and the Jewish rarely were.

The Jewish Museum can be found in the heart of Camden Town, a mere 3 minutes walk from the underground station in Raymond Burton House, Albert Street. Opening hours are between 10am and 5pm on weekdays, except Friday, which closes at 2pm ready for the Jewish Sabbath. The entry fee is £7.50 for adults, £5.50 concessions and £3.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 16.

Barking Abbey

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!”
– Genesis 28:16

Citing from Bishop John Inge’s book A Christian Theology of Place, the Right Reverend Dr Trevor Mwamba opens his Barking Abbey guidebook welcome letter with “The place in which we stand is often taken for granted and ignored in our increasingly mobile society.” Over recent years, the demographics of London areas, particularly the East End, has rapidly evolved from locally-born people to a population made up of people from all areas of the world. As a result, the history of the towns and cities of Britain are gradually fading into obscurity. An example of this can be found in the ethnically diverse town Barking; once home to one of the most important nunneries in the country, Barking Abbey, the commercialised town has almost forgotten its former roots.

Situated at one end of Barking Town Centre Market, St Margaret’s Church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch (289-304 AD), was originally built within the grounds of the former royal monastery, Barking Abbey. It originated as a chapel for the local people, its oldest section being the chancel built during the reign of King John (1166-1216), eventually becoming a parish church in approximately 1300. The abbey itself, however, is thought to have been founded as far back as 666 AD.

Most of what remains of Barking Abbey is the buried layout on the north side of the church, now named Abbey Green, some of which has been reconstructed. Fortunately, one part of the abbey survives intact. This is the Curfew Tower that was once one of the abbey’s three gateways. Built in 1460, many repairs have kept the Grade II listed building standing, a remnant of the past. On the upper storey, a small chapel can be accessed up a set of stairs, although, this is not used so often nowadays.

Historically, Barking was once a fishing and farming area, as remembered in many of St Margaret’s stained glass windows. A window on the east side, however, depicts a traditional Crucifixion scene flanked by two saints, St Cedd (right) and St Erkenwald, the founder of the abbey (left). In the 7th century, Erkenwald founded two monasteries, one for himself in Surrey and one for his sister Ethelburga. These abbeys were intended to re-introduce Christianity to the British Isles. Whilst Christianity had been made legal during Roman rule in the 4th century, it had begun to fall out of favour.

Ethelburga, later Saint Ethelburga, became the first abbess of Barking Abbey with the intention “to be a mother and nurse of devout women.” (Bede, 731 AD) Ethelburga was a holy, upright woman, constantly concerned for those under her care. Later, she founded the church All Hallows Berkyngechirche (now known as All Hallows by the Tower) in 675.

Barking Abbey was initially a double monastery of nuns and monks who shared the church whilst living in separate quarters. Later, in the 10th century, all double houses were reformed into single-sex abbeys. For the next couple of centuries, many abbesses were appointed by the kings of England, for instance, Matilda of Boulogne (1105-52), wife of King Stephen (c1092-1154), and King Henry II’s (1133-89) daughter, Matilda (1156-89). This ended in 1214 when the Pope insisted the nuns should be allowed to elect their own abbess.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror (1028-87) took refuge at Barking Abbey whilst he constructed the Tower of London. It is thought the king may have fled here after unfortunate misunderstandings during his coronation. Later, the abbey also became the holding place of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), who was forced to surrender some of her property to Hugh Despenser the younger (1286-1326).

As with all abbeys, monasteries and so forth, Barking Abbey succumbed to Henry VIII’s (1419-1547) Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Following this, the abbey was gradually demolished until only the Curfew Tower remained standing.  A lot of the building’s material was reused, for instance, to repair the roof of Greenwich Palace and to construct a new manor for the king in Dartford, Kent.

ees11608Due to its almost complete destruction, it is not altogether certain what the layout of Barking Abbey was, however, many rooms have been identified during recent excavations. The abbey’s main church sat at the heart of the site, its size similar to a cathedral: 103 x 30.5 metres (337 x 100 feet).

As well as the church, various chapels would have been found in the abbey, including the one that has been developed into St Margaret’s Church. Three grave slabs, attributed to the abbesses St Etherlburga, St Hildelith and St Wulfhilda, mark the position of the Saints Chapel. Other rooms, including cloisters, parlours, dormitories and the Reredorter have also been identified.

There are so many buildings that have not been excavated and have since been built upon. It is thought that the land belonging to Barking Abbey stretched as far as the River Roding, a tributary of the Thames, as shown in a drawing by Sir Charles Nicholson (1867-1949) based upon an original sketch produced in 1500.

St Margaret’s Church was fortunate to survive the Reformation and remained a parish church when the abbey was dissolved. Throughout the years, changes have been made to the building, including the plastering of the ceilings during the 18th century. The building was grade I listed in 1954 and has since been extended to house an office and refectory.

45150956_250210462310684_4637149440711327744_nWithin the church are a number of items that help to preserve the memory of the abbey and the history of the land and building since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Remnants of floor tiles from the original abbey are conserved in a glass display cabinet. From these, the quality and appearance of the masonry can be appreciated.

Other discoveries are also kept in this case, for instance, a Breeches Bible, which predates the King James Bible by approximately 50 years. This was a variation of the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and would have been read and used by people such as Shakespeare (1565-1616) and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). It was the first mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible in England, thus the first made available to the general public. The reason for its name, Breeches Bible, is the wording of verse 7 in Genesis 3:

“Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”

The King James Bible, printed in 1611, changed the word “breeches” to “apron”.

dsc00485Also within the display cabinet are examples of more recent histories and gifts given to the church. One of these is a book of paintings presented in 2004 by local artist George Emmerson. For a decade, Emmerson had been producing watercolours of St Margaret’s Church, the Curfew Tower and grounds, of which this was the final result. He gave it as a gift to the church as a means of saying thank you for the kindness and help shown to him and it “is a tribute to the clergy and the many people who do voluntary work to keep the church alive and prosperous.”

St Margaret’s also pays tribute to the explorer Captain James Cook (1728-99) who was married to his wife, Elizabeth Batts (1742-1835) in the church on 21st December 1762. This year, 2018, has been a significant year for remembering Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Pacific Ocean upon HMS Endeavour, which set sail 250 years ago. The church holds copies of newspapers about Cook’s demise in Hawaii and copies of the Marriage Register showing James and Elizabeth’s entry.

The church building itself is crammed full of history, from architecture to objects within the sanctuary. Although many renovations and extensions have occurred over the years, remnants of old decor can be seen in one corner of the ceiling where little cherub faces peer down at the congregation.

The timber beams and design of the roof over the North Aisle, which was built around the late 15th or 16th century, suggests the involvement of local ship-wrights. The Norman pillars in this section may have been taken from the abbey and the windows would have once been a traditional medieval style. In 1771, the windows were replaced with Georgian versions but the ones in place today were added in the 20th century.

Many bodies have been interred under the flagstones, which, unfortunately, are inevitably becoming illegible the more they are walked over. Some are now covered up by carpets and it is impossible to tell how many people are buried in total, nor their names. There are records of some of the people, for instance, William Pownsett whose tomb is more prominent. In his will, he asked, “to be buryed yn our lady chaple next unto my pew at Barking.”

On the walls around the building are monuments to those who had significant connections with the church. Some are more elaborate than others, a few including busts of the deceased. An impressive monument to Captain John Bennett (d.1716) remembers a wealthy man who became a captain in the Royal Navy at a young age. Another, featuring a skull, remembers the life of Sarah Fleming (d. 1715). Francis Fuller (d.1637), an official of the Exchequer who owned a number of estates in the parish of Barking is remembered in a monument featuring his bust in an oval niche.

During excavations of the abbey in 1912, an incised stone slab was unearthed in the Nun’s Cemetery. As well as words, it features an etching of a man named Martinus who was the first vicar of Barking from 1315 to 1328. This memorial stone is now kept in the sanctuary safe from the effects of harsh weather conditions that could permanently damage the inscription.

When renovations began in the late 1920s and 30s, George Jack (1855-1931) an architect, wood carver, stained glass artist and furniture designer for Morris & Co, became involved with the repair work. Jack was responsible for the fisherman’s stained glass window as well as a couple of memorial tablets and a pair of candelabra. For the Youth Chapel, Jack carved eight wooden figures of people with some association to the church. As well as two fishermen, these include James Cook, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), St Ethelburga, St Nicholas, St James and St John. They are still in remarkable condition today.

dsc00465On the Youth Chapel screen below the wooden figures is a contemporary painting by the artist Alan Stewart, which was unveiled by the Bishop of Barking in 2005. Titled Early in the Morning, the painting shows a black Christ in 21st-century clothing surrounded by disciples from a range of ethnic origins. This is to reflect on the diverse population of Barking and those who worship at St Margaret’s Church. The scene depicts Jesus serving breakfast to his disciples by the side of Lake Galilee as told in John 21 after his resurrection.

At the rear of the church is an octagonal stone font with a decorated wooden lid. This was painted during the renovations in the early 20th century. George Jack employed his daughter Jessie to help to paint his design onto the cover. Each of the eight segments features a bird and flowers on a blue background. Around the rim, carefully painted letters spell out the phrase “God hath given to us eternal life and this life is in his son”.

45192226_188526105356556_497570805895397376_nThe font, stained glass windows and wooden figurines are some of the most attractive objects in St Margaret’s Church, however, one carving often gets overlooked. In fact, people who attend services for years do not always notice it unless it has been deliberately pointed out.

At the end of each wooden pew is a distinctive carved design that, in some way, resemble leaves or a plant. Due to the similarities between each one, it is easy to miss the intriguing design at the end of one particular pew. Taking the same shape as all the others, this one features the heads of two dogs. The meaning of the carving is unknown but it is thought it could be a family’s coat of arms. This suggests that at one time wealthy members of the congregation may have paid to have their own pew where they would sit during every service they attended.

Although St Margaret’s Church may be tiny in comparison to the original Barking Abbey, its elaborate decor, architecture and age make it stand out from other churches in the area, particularly the more contemporary. It has also had a large share of notable clergymen, many of whom eventually became bishops. Even today’s vicar was once the Bishop of Botswana.

The Right Reverend Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was one of the many significant clergymen associated with St Margaret’s. Ordained in 1888, Henson was the vicar until 1895 when he became chaplain of an ancient hospice in Ilford. He was only 25, the youngest vicar in the country, when he joined the church, putting him in charge of an ever-growing working-class parish, whose population then stood at 12,000. Undaunted, Henson made a favourable impression on the congregation, a colleague later stating: “He came six months ago to a parish dead – 250 a good congregation in the church; and now, when he preaches, every seat is filled – 1100!”

St Margaret’s was only the beginning of Henson’s career; by 1900 he was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey. In 1917, he became Bishop of Hereford and it was only another three years before he also became the Bishop of Durham. During his final years, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) persuaded Henson out of retirement to resume his position as Canon of Westminster Abbey. It is said that Churchill was impressed with Henson’s strong views on ecclesiastical matters and his support of the Church of England.

Other vicars of St Margaret’s have gone on to be bishops including the Scottish Painter George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931), who went on to become Bishop of Sheffield, and William Chadwick (1905-1991) and James Roxburgh (1921-2007) who were both Bishop of Barking.

Today, St Margaret’s Church continues to welcome friends and strangers, inviting everyone to various services throughout the week and on Sundays. Visitors and regulars are also encouraged to enjoy tea, coffee, cakes and lunches in their cafe. Surrounded by a graveyard and the remains of Barking Abbey, the church is a beautiful, peaceful place to visit, both outside and within. It truly is a place of history and religion worthy of being used and remembered. It is thanks to places such as St Margaret’s that local history is recognised and commemorated.

Sunday Services:
8:30am – Said Eucharist
11am – Sung Eucharist
6:30pm – Evensong

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.