Ever since the dawn of humanity, there have been people in power, and people who are subservient to that power. And those people in power have always been absolute bastards. But where there are bastards, there are always dissenting voices. Now, Ian Hislop has picked a bunch of subversive objects from the British Museum collection to detail a history of international dissent. From Day of the Dead sculptures that mock factory owners to pussy hats and protest badges, Hislop’s exhibition promises a rollicking tour through several millennia of sticking it to the man.
How did you get roped into curating a major show at the British Museum?
‘It was the idea of the former director, Neil MacGregor. He said, “Well, I think people’s view of the British Museum is that it’s the treasure trove of authority and the governing classes. Can you find evidence of dissent? Can you find alternative voices? Objects that suggest people didn’t agree?” I thought it was a brilliant idea, and it gave me an excuse to poke around the collection for the next two years.’
What do these older objects in the show have to tell us about the place of dissent in modern society?
‘It’s immensely reassuring. We tend to patronise the past and assume that we’re much cleverer and smarter and braver than they were, and I find it very cheering that we’re not, actually, and they had a very dim view of some of the people put in charge of them and were brave enough in even tougher times to say so. I find that all very encouraging.’
Do ever think dissent and subversion can go too far? Or is kicking against the mainstream from a position of weakness always okay?
‘We have a couple of examples of dissent being used by people in authority. But you’ve got to make sure it’s punching upwards, as it were. From the incredibly brave people who were risking everything, to the people who were having a laugh to people who were vaguely complicit, the whole range is there.’
What if the satire goes against the grain of morality? What if it’s homophobic, transphobic, racist? ‘There’s a very small part of the Western world where you can now say what you want because these freedoms have been won. In most of the world, for most of history, dissent was met with imprisonment or death. So I think getting too worked up about the contortions of our particular time is not what the exhibition is about as a whole.’
Do you think the internet makes this exhibition a sort of future impossibility?
‘People who run the classical department here said that a lot of dissent and subversion in history has been in conversation, which is not recorded. But the act of actually creating an object in order to make dissent is so much of an effort that it actually becomes hugely significant. There is something about the actual material act that I think makes it interesting, and that hasn’t gone away, and I don’t think that’s going to change.’
'I Object' is at the British Museum from Sep 6. Find more information right here.