People Power: Fighting for Peace

Things to do, Exhibitions
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

It’s tempting to open this review with something like ‘in these fractious times, a show about protest couldn’t be more timely, blah blah blah’. And yes: it does feel like dissent is hanging in the air more feverishly than ever right now. But if the IWM’s chronicle of anti-war activism in the UK makes anything clear, it’s that for all the current renewed interest in organised protest, it’s hardly ever lain dormant.

The exhibition takes us through a century of placards, posters, banners, correspondence, art and archival footage. We kick off with the tiny band of conscientious objectors, who bravely fought to make their voices heard over a hostile society during World War I, before moving into the pacifist movement of the interwar years that waned at the outbreak of World War II and reignited with the dropping of the atom bomb. In a riot of shock-tactic slogans and graphics we’re taken from one decade into the next – the Cold War, Vietnam, Greenham Common – before concluding with the blood-splattered signage of the Stop The War coalition, which brought two million onto the streets of London in 2003 to demonstrate against the imminent invasion of Iraq.

What do we learn from the show? Firstly, that protest has never been a wipe-clean business: it’s always fraught with charged emotions and differing opinions. The suffragettes were split over the Great War; the pacifists of the 1930s were torn between holding their nerve against the march of Hitler or accepting war as a necessary counter-evil. Secondly, that serious protest is an endurance sport. Look out for a photograph from 1961 of the philosopher and lifelong rebel Bertrand Russell at an anti-nuclear ‘sit-in’ outside the Ministry of Defence. It later landed him in HMP Brixton for a week: he was 89. 

Thirdly, that amid the faceless crowds and chanting there’s an infinite number of very real stories to be told – and that’s where the IWM really get things right. Whether it’s a handwritten letter by soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, or footage of disenchanted Gulf servicemen casting aside their medals, or ephemera from the late Brian Haw’s camp in Parliament Square, the human dimension to this exhibition is what lends it such power. And whatever your position on the value of protest, this is a history lesson that’s rich, inspiring and, most surprising of all, patriotic.

By: Matt Breen

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