I like a bit of subversion. This new exhibition at the British Museum makes it very clear that, for centuries, humans have made small interventions, protests or signs on objects which record their disgruntlement or simply a desire to make their mark.
The pieces on show have been selected by Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, with co-curator Tom Hockenhull. Clearly, in a museum like the British Museum there is a great deal to choose from and it’s good to see interesting objects taken out of their usual display cases (or storage) and included in this show. I was already familiar with the wonderful penny stamped with Votes For Women which as such a blissfully clever way of distributing a message on such a commonplace piece of currency which would be impossible to trace yet would circulate widely spreading the message.
Movingly a Chinese stamp was designed to mark the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989. The numbers on the runners’ bibs carry the date the tanks rolled in and killed protesters.
I liked the Babylonian brick made for Nebuchadnezza’s tomb which had been scrawled with the maker’s name – a pretty treasonable thing – but he must have felt moved to make a grumpy mark on a hot day.
The yellow umbrellas used by protesters in Hong Kong in 2014 to shield themselves from pepper spray and tear gas during clashes with police spawned the ‘Umbrella Movement’. A mundane and necessary object has been cleverly adopted as a political symbol but, when challenged, the owner of a yellow umbrella could just shrug and say, ‘It’s raining, that’s why I’ve got my umbrella’.
In a more playful approach to dissent the curators chose to include a witty contribution from the artist Banksy – his cartoon of ‘Peckham Rock’.
Complete with a totally credible caption behind perspex, this drawing was described as a ‘finely preserved example of primitive art dating from the Post-Catatonic era and is thought to depict early man venturing towards the out of town hunting grounds.’ The artist is referenced as ‘Banksymus Maximus’. It’s a very clever pop at the rather po’faced hanging of pieces in a museum, and reputedly, it was quite sometime before the museum folk noticed it was hanging there! Now that’s an example of really clever dissent.