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The glorious history of dissent – from the ancient world to Ian Hislop

Blog | By Charlotte Thompson | Nov 29, 2018


How fitting to have an exhibition titled ‘I Object’ (until January 20) at the British Museum with its eight million objects. Word play was an underlying theme of the show with the humour of dissent as ancient as most of the objects.

On the day The Oldie visited, some English language-learners were there. From Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, and Syria, the students seemed well-versed in the subtle ways of undermining regimes with sly subversion and satire. Just not quite so flagrantly. Nor in the heart of the Establishment.

There were hoots of laughter at John Bull blowing a fart in the face of the king but more quiet contemplation of how money itself had been disfigured, from a penny of George VI with a Nazi logo crudely imprinted on his profile, to banknotes with the face of Muammar Gaddafi erased. That such an august British institution could shine a spotlight on underground resistance was both thrilling and shocking.

The students’ language skills, however, weren’t quite at the level of Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor, who was invited to have a rummage through the collection and then produce a series of entertaining talks in conjunction with Radio 4. He appears as a companion guide around the show with video clips following his voyages of discovery.

There are pieces as old as time on display but there are also Afghan carpets from the 1980s with Russian helicopters interwoven into the design in place of traditional flowers, and a pink Pussy hat from the Women’s march on Washington in January 2017.

At the exit to the gift shop there is also an appropriate reminder that the joke can be on the institution itself. On display in a glass cabinet is a cave painting depicting a primitive man – so far, so good – but in a typical Banksy prank, he is pushing a shopping trolley.

It’s refreshing that dissent is alive and kicking and a cause for celebration in London – if not quite so much in Tehran, Kabul, Damascus or, so it seems, Washington.