We are grateful that two of the attendees of our visit to the British Museum in September kindly agreed to write up their thoughts. With thanks to Gini for writing an overview and for Alex in sharing more individual thoughts.
A group of about 15 of us met up at the British Museum on 16th September to visit the Ian Hislop-curated exhibition. He used a collection of 100 objects within the museum to demonstrate how personal expression has the power to make change and drive progress. He explained that freedom of expression in different societies and at different times wasn’t often easy, but that throughout history people have expressed dissent through satire, art, outright opposition, defacing coins etc. The exhibition was arranged in different sections, illustrating the various ways we have expressed dissent throughout history.
Several of us had personal resonances to certain objects such as references to the draft and conscientious objectors, the yellow umbrella protest in Hong Kong, and actions around Votes for Women. There were several criticisms of some items; for example, the choice of the objects from India. On adjourning for coffee afterwards, the general consensus was that the group found the exhibition good, with one dissenting voice of excellence.
Overall, I had a positive impression of the exhibition. There were several items on display that were individually thought provoking, funny, or otherwise made me rethink my perspective on particular events in history. I particularly enjoyed the various items of artwork; an afghan rug, woven in a traditional style but for the inclusion of soviet attack helicopters, for example; and the group particularly enjoyed a rather shocking Georgian cartoon juxtaposing a male and female pair of legs, aimed at the then Duke of York. One of my personal favourites was a fake cave painting apparently planted in the museum itself a few years back by Banksy, making its inclusion here a very self-aware move by the museum considering its own role as a powerful institution.
Much of this raised the question, however, of what the exhibition was actually trying to accomplish. Dissent wasn’t defined at any point, meaning any plausible form of expression of objection to authority, by anyone, at any time, was fair game, and the exhibition ranged across time and space seemingly at random. Hence, we had everything from rude jokes hidden in statues and on banknotes, to a billboard made of Zimbabwean Dollars, and a mock Chinese landscape print featuring industrial decay and pylons. These items were all individually interesting, but frustratingly lacking in focus and context.
More frustrating was the absence of any theorising or critical analysis. A lot of the objects on display were made by the powerful to mock or denigrate their similarly powerful opponents. Sure enough, these would have been the objects that could be made to last and widely disseminated for much of history, hence their presence in the archives; but why wasn’t this made explicit, analysed, or problematised, especially when dissent is typically thought of as the actions of the otherwise powerless?
Nor was the dark side of dissent explored. What about acts of dissent that, although successful, ushered in dark periods of our history? What about actions taken to counter dissent? And why does some dissent succeed where other forms have failed? Again, many examples spring to mind, mostly because they were so noticeable in their absence.
I could go on at length about what else was missed (dissent as a challenge against narratives, for example, or how access to different material means affects dissent’s expression), but one has to be fair to Ian Hislop. When given the archives of an entire museum to search, and only one room in which to display his findings, one can easily imagine him getting choice paralysis. For what it’s worth, there was clear enthusiasm and energy on display in his selection, and the better parts of the exhibition did indeed provoke a lot of thoughtful conversation. Overall, I consider the exhibition to be a valiant proof of concept, and I hope dissent (however one defines it) gets further and more detailed consideration by the Museum down the line.