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I Object!

21 September 2018 Emily May

With turbulent times on the horizon, there’s a lot to object to in current politics. But protest isn’t restricted to contemporary times, or even the 21st century. The history of dissent stretches right back to ancient civilizations, proving that humans have always had a penchant for protest, and haven’t actually changed much over the past 2000+ years. Such is the theme of “I Object!”, a new exhibition at The British Museum curated by Private Eye editor and Have I Got News For You star Ian Hislop.

Hislop’s curatorial debut has seen him select a range of subversive and satirical artefacts from the museum’s archives, with origins spanning continents and centuries. It’s refreshing to see an exhibition about protest that doesn’t solely draw on the usual Western suspects. Instead, there are references to various international political crises, from posters made of real bank notes campaigning against the 2007/08 economic collapse in Zimbabwe to Mexican papier mâché day of the dead figures from the 1980s mocking “Uncle Sam” and a factory owner as part of the annual day of the dead festival. There’s also a multitude of objects from British history: defaced coins emblazoned with Votes for Women slogans and satirical cartoons of members of the British upper classes, with James Gillaray’s 1792 portrait of a gluttonous and disease-riddled Prince of Wales a particular highlight.
 
 Factory owner from Day of Dead festival, Mexico, 1980s, papier-mâché. © The Trustees of the British Museum

But the standout pieces of the exhibition are definitely those from the classical world, as they offer a window into the psyche of peoples that often feel removed from our modern experience. From the decapitated statue of the Emperor Augustus, the head symbolically buried by Sudanese soldiers in an act of defiance against the Roman Empire, to the cheeky terracotta depictions of Horus with grossly enlarged phalluses that were kept by Egyptian families, the classical artefacts on display offer a colourful take on the human side of ancient civilizations, one which is often unobtainable from the stone cold faces of busts and sculptures that we are all familiar with.
 
Hislop’s curatorial voice is loud and clear throughout the exhibition. As well as the official museum captions, there are also many thought bubbles next to objects that offer his personal, and sometimes humorous, comments about the items on display. This sense of informality, along with the fact that his name is included in the exhibition, draws visitors’ attention to the detached tone curators often adopt when creating exhibitions, and highlights how a more personal, individual and intimate approach to curation may be valuable.
 
 Banksy (born 1974), Peckham Rock, UK, 2005. This object was secretly placed in a gallery at the British Museum by the artist in 2005 and was undiscovered for three days. © Banksy courtesy of Pest Control Office.

Whilst the far reaching and all-inclusive nature of the exhibition is one of the key factors in its success, it also means it lacks a sense of order (though this seems apt when considering the theme of dissent), and can seem slightly more like a jumble sale of Hislop’s “favourite things” than a cohesive exhibition. There is a nod towards structure with section titles ranging from “Spreading the message” to “Not what it seems”, but they’re rather vague and it’s hard to follow the sections in any chronological order with the display cases arranged in a pathway of concentric circles.
 
This being said, the real success of I Object! is its interactive nature. Throughout the exhibition there are various opportunities for visitors to transform from spectators into participants by writing and displaying their responses to carefully considered questions such as “What are you passionate about?” and “How have you dissented/protested?” Unsurprisingly, many of the responses allude to Brexit and Trump, and it’s pleasing to see the level of engagement and willingness to share opinion from the attendees, especially when there have been many accusations of contemporary political apathy. As I Object! proves, we’ve got a lot to live up to.
 
I Object! runs until 20 January 2019 at The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG
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