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From satirical coins to subversive salt-shakers: a history of political protest through objects

A new exhibition at the British Museum gathers seditious items from across the world and the centuries.

In 1972, as a boy aged 12, I was taken by my parents to see the great Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum. I still have the folder with the boy king’s head on the outside. I was hugely impressed with the tragic dynastic glamour of the royal tomb. Now, as an adult, I have chosen to put a rather different Egyptian artefact on display at the same museum. It is an ostracon, a stone fragment used to write or draw on, possibly made by a tomb builder. The maker has mimicked the formal funerary style used to portray the pharaohs, but has instead depicted a man and a woman doing something more, well, life affirming.

When I was younger I was terrified of the huge bearded winged figures in the Assyrian galleries, who had the heads of humans and the bodies of bulls. In the museum there is also a rather more humble piece of ancient sculpture – it’s a brick in fact – from Babylon and inscribed, in accordance with regulation, with the name of the king. But then the maker has carved his own name on the brick as well, in an act of defiance that is meant, I think, to suggest that it is no less silly for him than for the great ruler to commemorate himself on such an item. The brick was then put in a wall and was probably never meant to be seen again, so we have no idea if “Zabina” showed his handiwork to his friends and they shared a laugh at his audacity, or whether he did it entirely in secret. Either way, I think the very act of inscription will have been extremely satisfying and, indeed, Zabina may have believed that there was an unseen audience of God, his ancestors or of posterity observing the process and thinking, “Well, that’s quite funny.” I like the thought that this brick maker, nearly two-and-a-half-thousand years ago, quite literally made his mark on the world. It’s a fantastic, very ancient, small act of rebellion.

These are the sort of objects that I was hoping to find when Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, approached me with an idea for an exhibition about subversion and dissent. The museum’s collection is extraordinary, but at first sight it all seems to be reinforcement, if not actually a celebration of authority: it’s about history’s rulers and their statues, pictures, weapons, coins, clothing and jewellery. Or is it? I wanted to find out whether there were objects that challenged the official version of events.

I was initially worried that evidence of dissent would be rare, particularly the further back in history we went. To literally “make” a protest in the form of an object is quite a committed act and has often, both in the past and present, been one that risked death or imprisonment. Perhaps there would be nothing. But the response from the museum departments was remarkable. The material just kept coming, from across periods, cultures and locations: carved doors from Nigeria, a scroll painting from China, shadow puppets from Turkey, a revolutionary print from France, a lacquer box from Burma and banknotes from all over the world.

The co-curator of the exhibition, Tom Hockenhull, works in the Coins and Medals department, and he made me realise that money has frequently been used for dissent. The very tokens of authority that all regimes consider the evidence of their rule have been hijacked. Not only is this conceptually pleasing, but also what better way is there to get your message into circulation than to use the most widely circulated objects of all? There are coins and notes galore in the collection, defaced, tampered with and imitated. They are pocket-sized statements of subversion designed to be passed from person to person.

I was struck immediately by the variety in tone of the objects. There are some items that you can appreciate immediately, and then there are others that are so subtle it is almost impossible to understand them without explanation. A British satirical print from the 18th century showing John Bull, the embodiment of Britain, farting at a portrait of George III is not too difficult to decipher. Yet a beautiful picture of two innocent-looking owls from 1970s China was an artist’s protest at being condemned for supposed “animosity towards the proletarian cultural revolution” – in Chinese culture the owl is sometimes seen as a creature of ill omen, and a winking owl in a previous work was taken as a seditious comment on Mao Zedong’s poor health. 

 An Indian print that shows the goddess Kali wearing severed heads that look suspiciously European is obviously an anti-colonial statement. But the significance of the leopard on a raffia cloth from the Democratic Republic of Congo is less immediately clear – it was possibly made in opposition to the dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu, who was fond of leopard imagery and wore a leopard-skin hat – and the number “45” on an 18th-century British teapot is puzzling until you know it referred to a particular issue of a radical magazine attacking George III. These objects need a little more context and explanation to reveal what their creators were up to, and why they were being more discreet.

There are also items that were not originally meant to be subversive but which were adapted or used to become a means of protest. There are shawls from Madagascar, tunics from Sudan and sketches of umbrellas from Hong Kong.

One of my favourite objects is an example of dissent more or less hiding in plain sight. I have passed it in the galleries and thought it was beautiful, but had no idea that there might be any hidden meaning within it. It is the Stonyhurst Salt, an elaborate piece of tableware made from recycled reliquaries. The object was made in England in the 1570s, at a time when Catholic worship had been banned. It is passing itself off as a salt cellar, but on closer examination this is clearly unconvincing. How many salt cellars were made from silver gilt decorated with rock crystal, the symbol of Christ’s purity, and droplet-sized rubies that appear to symbolise Christ’s blood, which was represented by the wine Catholics drank at the then forbidden Mass? It is obviously a piece of outlawed Catholic ornamentation pretending to be something else. Presumably it gave its owners a huge amount of satisfaction at the dinner table.

Dissent clearly varies in terms of seriousness. There are some items that have posed a genuine threat to authority and others that are much sillier. But they all merit a second look because they show people questioning the status quo and refusing to accept what they are being told. They may have been hoping to overthrow the state, been letting off steam because they could not keep silent any more, or simply been trying to amuse each other.

I have spent a career operating in the realms of the written word and in my satirical field you risk no more than the odd libel writ, a fine, or, if very unlucky, a prosecution for contempt. I’m always impressed by people in other societies and in past eras who have risked more – their lives, livelihoods, homes and families – in order just to say “No”.

Dissent is also quite chaotic. It doesn’t create a perfect narrative and it often doesn’t present very coherent answers. I think if we challenged many of the people who created or adapted these objects to come up with a clearly defined solution to the system they oppose, they would say that isn’t the point. What we have gathered together in this show is a group of objects that firstly define what dissent, subversion and satire mean in material terms and then investigate the ways in which they are circulated, the extent to which they are tolerated or controlled, how subtle or blatant the execution is and the way they subvert official art or representation.

In this exhibition we’re glimpsing just the tip of a very large iceberg. The veiled nature of a lot of dissent means that so many stories will have been lost, and we can’t identify veiled symbolism without having at least a little bit of historic context. Even today most political cartoons in newspapers need footnotes the week after they’re published because everyone’s already forgotten what happened. It only gets harder the further back in time that we go. But I hope people will be heartened by the presence and historical persistence of the dissenting voice. It is also exciting to think that we know everything about a particular object and then to find out that there are still discoveries to be made.

For me, though, the greatest pleasure is in seeing the evidence of that questioning spirit surviving, even if the humans responsible are long gone. Why on earth do people do this? I suppose it is a release, a way of having some control over the world, an act of defiance. In the end, I think they do it because they can. And that seems to be the important thing. There is a delightful sense of fellow-feeling in seeing a Jacobite garter from three hundred years ago saying “Down with Rump” and then a badge that says “Dump Trump”. Perhaps one day that will be a museum piece also in need of an explanation.

“I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent” is at the British Museum until 20 January 2019. The accompanying book by Ian Hislop and Tom Hockenhull is published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left