‘Conservatives: putting the ‘n’ in cuts’ reads a small badge exhibited in close proximity to coins rebranded with political messages and an Ancient Egyptian papyrus mocking the morbid mainstream art of the era.
Curated by Ian Hislop, this exhibition is the alternative version of former British Museum Director Neil MacGregor’s 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'. A thorough rummage through the museum’s storage boxes has enabled Hislop to dredge up a varied - and often individually fascinating - collection of objects all based on the age-old urge to fight the powers that be. Because, as Mary Oliver said, to be human is to sing your own song.
The most impressive items on display are the ones demonstrating how people have covertly resisted tyrannical and repressive regimes. There’s a hand-woven rug emblazoned with a proverb secretly criticising Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, a poster made from real Zimbabwean bank notes protesting spiralling rates of inflation, and a beautiful set of carved Yoruba door panels taking the mick out of British colonialism.
The less edifying part of the show is seeing how, along with global dictators, the other group of people routinely feeling the sharp end of ‘satire’ are women. Cleopatra appears on a Roman oil lamp riding a crocodile with an extra-large cock, and there’s a fourteenth century letter seal engraved with ‘by the cross, women are mad’, because a letter’s just not a letter until it’s sealed with a sexist kiss.
But most bizarre of all is a limestone statue believed to be an act of ancient Assyrian bodyshaming or, as Hislop labels it, ‘an early version of “revenge porn”’. It’s thought some charmer decided to use his wealth to forever commemorate an out-of-favour courtesan as having too fat thighs. Lads, really?
Britain, on the whole, doesn’t come off that well either. Our political wit tends to be of the fart joke variety. Not that it entirely prevents us from being funny. Slap-bang in the middle of the ‘make your own badge’ section is a plain circle bearing the words: ‘Should have been done by Paul Merton.’ Harsh, but at least it shows the national pastime of complaining is alive and well.