Working for Russia
I don’t even know what money looks like
Only tellings off, pays cuts, ingratitude commands
The members of the East German punk band Namenlos were given twelve to eighteen months prison sentences for performing those lyrics in 1983 writes Andy Stowe. They probably didn’t expect that in 2018 they’d be an exhibit in the British Museum. Editor of Private Eye and Friday night family entertainer Ian Hislop picked their track as one example of dissent in repressive regimes in the British Museum’s new exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent.
The museum famously partners up with all sorts of dodgy corporate sponsors. Just about the first thing visitors to this one get to read is a mission statement from Citibank and the exhibition concludes with the mandatory exit through the gift shop where you can buy, according to taste, some anti-Trump, anti-Putin, anti-King George merchandise. There’s material for another Namenlos song in an exhibition curated by a celebrity, funded by a bank, turning rebellion into money.
Hislop occupies a peculiar niche in British public life. He is one of the ruling class’ authorised dissidents. He went to a boarding school and on to Oxford University and uses his TV appearances and Private Eye to make the case for unideological, competent government. He gives the impression of being the sort of journalist for whom the freedom to dissent is absolutely non-negotiable and who’d probably be willing to go to prison rather than compromise on this principle.
Social conflict and class struggle aren’t part of his world view. Instead of a coherent exhibition we are offered a random selection of items from the museum’s storage rooms linked only by captions written by Hislop explaining why they caught his eye. Many of them are very striking. These are artefacts which in many cases would have led to the imprisonment, torture or execution of their creators or owner. There’s a floor covering from Congo ridiculing the dictator Mobutu; a Chinese postage stamp designer whose fate is unknown made a coded reference to the massacre at Tiananmen Square in a commemorative issue for 1992 Olympics. It was an act of incredible courage made by someone who must have known that the consequences would be severe.
Yet there is no attempt to understand or explain why people are motivate enough to possibly risk their lives to stand up for the ideas that motivate them. Anyone hoping to learn why Indian nationalist Bhagat Singh (pictured) of the Hindustan Republican Socialist Association assassinated a British police officer and went on the run in European dress will not leave with their questions answered.
We are usefully reminded that sexualised, misogynistic abuse of women who displease men is as old as patriarchal relationships. Cleopatra is depicted in two exhibits and it is her sexuality and body which is used to ridicule her. It didn’t start with Twitter.
As Hislop is now something of a national treasure, he won’t object to the suggestion that the exhibition gives the overwhelming impression of being pulled together because the museum had a gap in its calendar and a lot of stuff it wasn’t displaying. It’s advertised on the basis of his high profile and leaves the visitor feeling that it’s all just too decontextualised and random.