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.
Sticking 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.