History may be written by the victors, but the voices of those who kicked against authority – whether for political or religious reasons, or simply for their own amusement – can still be heard, ringing deep into our past. Although much of this dissent relied on the spoken or written word, objects can also preserve stories of underground movements, open rebellion, and stinging satires. How many such artefacts, though, can be found in the collections of state museums, themselves often stereotyped as bastions of authority?
The answer, in the case of the British Museum, is more than you might think – and around 100 highlights are now on display in a new exhibition, I Object, that runs until early next year (see Further information). Its contents have been selected by Ian Hislop, the satirical broadcaster and editor of Private Eye – an organ that is no stranger to challenging the official view of events – who was invited to co-curate this collection of irreverent objects with the help of Tom Hockenhull, British Museum Curator for Modern Money within the Department of Coins and Medals.
Selecting suitably subversive artefacts from the museum’s nine million-strong holdings was no small task – at the exhibition launch we were told that the project took more than three years to come together – but the result is a diverse mix ranging across the globe and spanning a broad sweep of history. Artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the satirical heartlands of Greece and Rome vie for attention with much more modern objects – one of the most recent being a newly acquired pink knitted ‘pussyhat’, worn on a January 2017 women’s rights march to symbolise rejection of misogynistic remarks by the then newly elected US President Donald Trump.
Taken together, the displays represent an eclectic and international array that falls into three broad categories: openly political messages campaigning for specific causes; covert (and often carefully concealed) undermining of those in authority or expressions of support for opposing powers; and satirical or otherwise humorous items. In Britain, the ‘Golden Age of Satire’ is held to be the 18th century, when caricaturists like James Gillray and Richard Newton wielded their art against the powers of the day with devastating effect. Of these often-humiliating depictions, the British Museum has an embarrassment of riches to choose from, boasting as it does the largest collection of 17th- to 19th-century satirical prints in the country; six representative examples are included in the exhibition. Other artefacts from these shores reflect expressions of discontent from other periods – including times when dissent was downright dangerous.
Badge of honour?
We are fortunate today to live in a Britain where we can express our views openly – from protest marches and radio phone-ins to the proliferation of political commentary (whether witty or more crudely phrased) that can be found on social media. One of the clearest ways to wear your principles on your sleeve – or your lapel – though, is with a colourful pin badge. Modern examples displayed in the exhibition champion causes that will be immediately recognisable to contemporary viewers – anti-austerity messages, the 2016 US Presidential campaign, the NHS, the Free Palestine movement, and both sides of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 – but older badges tell less well-known stories.
One of these was worn by supporters of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage – an organisation that campaigned vociferously between 1910 and 1918 against female voting rights, even though they counted many women among their members – who ultimately found themselves on the wrong side of history and have faded from view. (For more on the material culture of the women’s suffrage movement, see CA 336.) This group may have been trying to preserve the status quo, but another pin, shaped like the number 45, represents rather more revolutionary ideas.
It represents a now almost-forgotten episode from the 1760s, when the radical politician John Wilkes founded a newspaper called The North Briton. Like Wilkes, this publication was outspokenly critical of the king, George III, and his allies in parliament – and in issue 45 he went too far, so offending the sensibilities of the powers-that-be that he was expelled from parliament, convicted of sedition, and forced into exile. In response, ‘45’ briefly became a symbol of liberty, used as a covert expression of antimonarchist sympathies. Wilkes’ more daring (or brazen) supporters would attach the number to their clothing, but it also pops up on more unlikely objects from this period: the exhibition also includes a rather ornate teapot, which has the offending digits tucked discreetly under its spout.
Penny for your thoughts
Another means to which past and present campaigners have turned to help spread their message is defacing money. Without access to extensive campaign funds, and particularly before the advent of social media, this has historically been an effective way to put a slogan literally into circulation (though we should add that, under UK law, it is illegal to deface a banknote or destroy a coin!). Among examples included in the exhibition, we find a penny of Edward VII that represents the other side of the early 20th-century arguments about women’s electoral rights. The coin dates from 1903 but is thought to have been modified in 1913 or 1914. On it, the king’s face has been defiantly etched with the Suffragette slogan ‘Votes for women’, clearly expressing not only their political aim, but a distinct lack of deference towards the authorities of the day.
Another monarch to have been defaced in this way was Edward’s grandson, George VI – though apparently for something that was not his fault. A two-shilling coin from 1937 bears a strongly-expressed inscription, with the word ‘Nazi’ and a swastika carved into the royal portrait on the coin’s obverse. What had the only recently crowned king done to attract such ire? It is thought that in fact this was intended as a commentary on the fascist sympathies of George’s predecessor, Edward VIII – but as Edward had abdicated the throne after just a few months, no coins bearing his image were in circulation. Instead, it seems that poor George was acting as something of a lightning rod for his brother’s notoriety. This form of ‘creative disobedience’ (as Ian Hislop describes it) has persisted into the present day: alongside a colourfully daubed penny from 1961 that demands an end to the ‘BBC monopoly’, we find contemporary concerns from home and abroad – including €5 notes doodled with images of the Grim Reaper (a commentary on the Greek financial crisis) and a £20 note stamped with an anti-Brexit slogan.
It has not always been safe to express political sympathies so openly, however. During the Protestant Reformation, all overt acts of Catholic worship were outlawed, and showing support for the Church in Rome could put you in danger of imprisonment or worse. English Catholics did not give up their practices so easily, however – they just had to be a lot more subtle in how they went about expressing their beliefs.
A particularly beautiful example of this initiative is the Stonyhurst salt, a silver-gilt salt cellar dating from 1577-1578. In the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign – with war against Catholic Spain looming, rebellions centring on her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Pope declaring Elizabeth an excommunicated heretic to whom her subjects owed no allegiance – anyone voicing support for papal authority would have been viewed with suspicion, if not accused of treason. But this apparently innocuous salt cellar skips around the controversy neatly: it is in fact made from recycled pieces of reliquaries and ecclesiastical plate, and its decorations are rich in religious symbolism. The rock crystals, garnets, and rubies that adorn its sides would have resonated deeply with Catholics of the time – they represent Christ’s purity and the blood shed by him and Catholic martyrs. Yet to anyone who queried its presence in a household, it could be explained away as an innocent, if very ornate, piece of tableware.
The exhibition also includes echoes of Catholic congregations who refused to accept the change of regime – or, at least, who hoped that it would be reversed in the future. Under the Reformation, orders were given to destroy ‘idolatrous’ religious images, yet many communities seem to have defied the spirit of these commands by squirrelling away fragments of broken objects for safekeeping. These include a finely carved wooden head and foot – all that remains of a representation of Christ from a crucifix belonging to All Hallows Church, in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. The pieces had been hidden inside a church wall – as had fragments of several alabaster panels, which once depicted religious scenes, and were only rediscovered within the church of St Mary, in Kettlebaston, Suffolk, during building works in the 19th century.
Religious differences may sometimes have been construed as treasonous, but expressing support for a rival claimant to the throne was rather less ambiguous. A number of objects from the 17th and 18th centuries voice allegiance to the Catholic Stuart dynasty (whose kings were deposed in 1649, when Charles I was executed at the culmination of the English Civil War, and again in 1689 when James II was forced to abdicate in favour of his daughter, Mary II, and her husband and co-ruler William III). They do so in carefully concealed ways.
The executed Charles I was considered a martyr by his supporters, but during the Interregnum of 1649-1660 such views were highly politically sensitive. Canny individuals were able to express themselves in ways that escaped the notice of Oliver Cromwell’s government, however – including the owner of a finger ring that features among the current displays. At first glance, it is a typical 17th-century mourning ring, decorated with black enamel and floral designs, and topped with a large raised gem. Such pieces of jewellery were common for the period, and its owner could have worn it freely in public, attracting nothing more than a sympathetic glance for his or her bereavement.
Yet this ring hides a Royalist secret: the gem covers a hinged lid, beneath which lies a portrait of Charles I. Dating from c.1650, when emotions about the death of Charles I and England’s religious and political destiny were at a peak, the ring allowed its bearer to satisfy their loyalty, but also keep themselves safe.
Although Charles’ son, Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660, controversy continued to dog the Stuarts – barely three decades later, James II was forced into exile by the Glorious Revolution, and his Protestant daughters, Mary II and Anne I, ascended the throne in turn in preference to his Catholic son, also called James. But Mary and Anne had no surviving children: by 1714 the Stuart regime was over, and a new dynasty, the House of Hanover, was on the throne in the person of George I.
Not everyone was willing to let the Stuart dream die, however, with supporters known as Jacobites rallying first around James II’s son, the ‘Old Pretender’ James Francis Edward Stuart, and then his grandson, the ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart, better known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. A fine silk garter displayed in I Object represents this latter cause: dating from c.1745, the time of the ‘Jacobite Rising’ when Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to reclaim the British throne for his father, it bears the text ‘God bless PC and down with the Rump’. ‘PC’ proclaims the wearer’s support for the campaigns of Prince Charles, but the reference to ‘the Rump’ leads us back to the beginning of the House of Stuart’s travails – it refers to the small faction of the English Parliament who ordered the execution of Charles I.
Humour and hubris
All of the objects described above were pushing for political change. Yet it is also possible to challenge authority in a less serious way – namely, by poking fun at it. The British Museum itself has not escaped this kind of attention – and nor are its curators too proud to include a couple of objects in the exhibition that represent just this kind of humour at its own expense. Among these – one of two loans that feature in the displays, the other being from the British Library – is ‘Peckham Rock’, a work by the irreverent street artist Banksy. At a very casual first glance, this piece of concrete might be mistaken for a cave painting – except that the supposedly prehistoric figure it depicts is shown pushing a shopping trolley. Nevertheless, in 2005 the artwork – accompanied by a suitably serious caption attributing it to the ‘Post-Catatonic Era’ and an individual called ‘Banksymus Maximus’ – remained unnoticed on the wall of a British Museum gallery for three days until the artist revealed the hoax on his website.
An equally cheeky, though somewhat earlier, impulse is reflected by one of the international objects on display. This fired clay brick from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (c.604-561 BC) was pointed out to CA by Ian Hislop as the object that most resonates with him within the exhibition. The Babylonian king had issued an edict that all bricks should be stamped with his name – yet on this example, three Aramaic letters scratched in the top right-hand corner represent the name of a second individual, probably the brickmaker, called ‘Zabina’. Was this an act of defiance against the king’s authority? A humorous rebellion mocking the ruler’s self-important demand to include his name everywhere? Or simply the impish instinct that still spurs people to leave their prints in wet cement today? We will probably never know. But, as Hislop said, ‘the fact that throughout history there is a constant thread of people who are willing to take a risk – whether to let off steam, change the world, or amuse their friends – is a very cheery message.’
The Citi exhibition I Object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent runs at the British Museum until 20 January 2019. For more information, see www.britishmuseum.org/iobject.