British Museum Traces History of Dissent From Ancient Egypt to Today

‘I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent’ span centuries, continents

The toppled head of Augustus spent centuries buried underneath the door to an invading force's victory shrine Trustees of the British Museum
"Pussy Hat," 2017 Trustees of the British Museum
James Gillray, "A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion," 1792 Trustees of the British Museum

At first blush, many of the roughly 100 artifacts featured in the British Museum’s latest exhibition, I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent, might feel somewhat mundane. But a closer examination of these everyday pieces reveals their revolutionary intent. One 1903 penny is etched with a suffragette rallying cry surface. Another object, the Stonyhurst Salt, a 16th-century salt shaker, defied the English Reformation by masquerading as a lavish yet secular piece of tableware.

Curated by Ian Hislop, editor of British satirical magazine Private Eye, the show samples tokens of dissent, subversion and satire across centuries and continents. The Guardian’s Stephen Moss notes that the show honors average citizens and artists who refused to accept the political, religious, and cultural norms of their society. The emphasis here is less on the art itself; rather the show is interested in what Hislop describes as “every time anyone had made or tampered with a material object in order to say: ‘No!’”

According to a press release, Hislop and curator Tom Hockenhull pulled the exhibition's eclectic assortment of objects from the museum’s existing collection. Hislop tells the Independent’s Sean O’Grady that the show is not trying to tell the definitive story of dissent. Instead, the emphasis is on a “collection of objects about objecting.”

The result of Hislop and Hockenhull’s collaboration is a whirlwind tour through history, as represented by mediums including sculpture, textiles, painting, artisan craft, political cartoons and collage. Some of the stops on this journey may hit home more than others: For the Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming, pieces like a brick scrawled with a worker’s name over that of Nebuchadnezzar II, a Babylonian king who demanded that all bricks carry his name, tracked, while the inclusion of works such as a Chinese watercolor where the viewer must spot and interpret the 21st-century telegraph poles marring the otherwise serene landscape felt less like a revolution and more like “tedious contemporary art.”

One of the exhibition’s most subversive yet easily decipherable selections is a set of door panels designed by Nigerian craftsmen during the early 20th century. The carvings appear to depict traditional cultural practices—at least in the eyes of British curators who opted to include them in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley—but actually feature caricatures of colonial administrators riding on motorbikes, the New York Times’ Alex Marshall reports.

“If you dissent well enough, you can smuggle [your work] into the British Empire Exhibition as the prize exhibit,” as Hislop tells Marshall.

British Museum Traces History of Dissent From Ancient Egypt to Today
A set of Nigerian door panels features a witty caricature of British colonial administrators riding on motorbikes Trustees of the British Museum

Another highlight is “A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion,” a 1792 sketch by caricaturist James Gillray that thoroughly satirizes Britain’s Prince Regent George, later George IV—in addition to portraying the future king as a corpulent slob, Gillray attacks him through minute details like a chamber pot overflowing with unpaid medical bills for what Hislop terms “clearly unsavoury diseases.”

The decapitated head of Augustus, lopped off of a statue by Kushite invaders and buried underneath the door of a victory shrine, shows the wide-ranging historical gaze of I Object, which looks back as far as ancient Rome and Egypt. The artifact, which is positioned on its side, calls attention to the former emperor’s unblinking painted eyes, which deliver a piercing indictment to all who pass by.

Recent additions to the British Museum’s collection stand at the other end of the historical spectrum. As Marshall notes, the show includes Banksy’s “Peckham Rock,” a chunk of graffitied stone that the street artist secretly “installed” in the museum in 2005, as well as a “pussyhat,” a knitted pink cap created by protestors for women’s rights marches in 2017.

I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent is on view at the British Museum through January 20, 2019.

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