Ian Hislop’s I Object at the British Museum is made up of around 100 pieces from across the globe and through the ages, from Ancient Egypt to Banksy. The one thing they all have in common? Each shines a light on the endless ability we humans have to undermine authority.
Sometimes that rebellious streak is comedic, sometimes the undertones are more serious. The ‘pussy’ hats worn on women’s marches against Donald Trump’s blatant misogyny are powerful, emblematic, and a little bit funny. As are Richard Newton’s 18th-century satirical prints, proving the old ones are still the best – particularly when it comes to fart jokes.
But more often than not these works are darker and illustrate the little things people will do to speak truth to power. The simple act of carrying a bright yellow umbrella in Hong Kong in 2014 was a defiant statement against anti-democratic interference from Beijing, for example, not just necessary protection from the tear gas used to disperse protesters.
Aside from seeing first hand why a rebellious streak can be so valuable, I Object tells us a little about ourselves and each other.
Really I Object is all about human nature: why people do what they do and the extent to which they will go to prove a point. If you can get to grips with the magnetic pull of satire and the importance of protest to the human condition, the benefits go way beyond boosting your professional skills.
The idea for an exhibition dedicated to satire came to life in 2015, when British Museum curator Tom Hockenhull and Ian Hislop, mainstay on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You and editor of Private Eye, started looking for examples of subversion – artistic and otherwise – among the museum’s huge collection of artefacts.
Hislop has made a living poking fun at power; his thoughts are dotted around the exhibition in speech bubbles, a nice contrast to the traditional captions complementing each exhibit.
The sheer breadth of the collection came as a surprise to both curators. “We knew there would be 18th-century British satire, but we didn’t expect to find much evidence of people mocking or questioning authority in more conservative societies – Ancient Egypt, Babylon, the Ottoman Empire, or early-modern China”, explains Tom Hockenhull.
“I was sceptical that we might find evidence of dissent or humour from all periods and places, but now I’m convinced: subversion and satire really are part of the human condition.”
The exhibition also includes Banksy’s ‘Peckham Rock’, a lump of stone depicting a caveman pushing a supermarket trolly that was secretly installed in the British Museum by the artist and passed off as prehistoric (for three whole days) back in 2005.
It’s nice to see the British Museum able to have a giggle at its own expense. But this is by no means the conveyor belt of laughs you might expect given Hislop’s influence. Rather, it’s about the enduring human spirit, our capacity to struggle, and the small steps we choose to take to undermine those in power.
All of which feels apt at the moment with Brexit, Trump, Fake News and the way that everyone seems to hate each other these days. Perhaps dissent – sometimes funny, sometimes not so – is a silver lining of sorts.
“There has always been satire,” says Hockenhull. “And there are times when conditions have been perfect to allow it to flourish. It helps, for example, to have a highly centralised version of
or at least public figures who display some interesting quirks of character.”
I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent is at the British Museum, London, until 20 January