London: “I Object” @ the British Museum

Wow, it’s been a long time (almost three months) since I’ve done a London post, even though I live here. Actually, there really weren’t many exhibitions over the summer (or at least ones I was interested in), so it’s probably a good thing I went to France and America – it gave me something to blog about! But autumn is looking much more promising on the exhibitions front, including this one currently at the British Museum (until 20 January 2019): “I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent.”

  

I do quite like Ian Hislop (I really liked the Wipers Times musical, and I like a bit of HIGNFY as well, though I would not recommend actually going to see it filmed, because you will be there for HOURS with no toilet breaks), so I was eager to see this. Admission is £12, though we were able to get half off with our National Art Passes, and because it is not the British Museum’s main special exhibition, there was no need to pre-book (at least not on the day I visited, though if you do pre-book, be sure to leave time to get through the (newish) security/bag check shed, as there is often a lengthy queue). This isn’t to say that it isn’t still popular – there were definitely more people inside than I find ideal (bearing in mind the number of people I find ideal is zero), which would have been fine in a larger space, but because it was fairly cramped, I did have to contend with annoying people who spent way too long standing right in front of various displays and refusing to move, even when people were obviously queuing behind them.

  

I’d read a few reviews before visiting, which were mainly negative, so my expectations were not terribly high, but I think the exhibition got off to a strong start with Hislop’s five favourite objects, one of which (seen below left) was also my favourite object (so much so that I went home with a print of it, though I really don’t know why I keep buying prints). Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there. The whole premise of this exhibition is that Hislop believes history is written by the winners, so he was trying to find subversive objects that challenge the traditional historical narrative. Of course, these objects were taken from the British Museum’s collections, so were thus already part of the narrative in some sense. Ironically, the exhibition itself didn’t have much of a narrative; rather, the commentary was in the form of those little talk bubbles you see above, showing Hislop’s thoughts on each object, combined with a curator-written description of what the object was, but there was nothing particularly tying the objects together, and it skipped from different historical eras the entire time, with no coherent timeline.

  

That said, a lot of the objects on display here were pretty great, so even though I didn’t always understand what was going on with society at the times they were made (I was fine with the British stuff, but a lot of it was Egyptian and Roman, and my knowledge of those periods is pretty damn patchy, so just naming random emperors and assuming the general public would know who they were talking about was a bit presumptuous, even for the British Museum), I could still enjoy looking at them. And who doesn’t love a fart joke? Or a skeleton? (OK, maybe I’m the only one that loves skeletons, but I think a lot of people find fart jokes funny, judging by their prevalence throughout history.)

  

Or a poop joke for that matter, as seen above in the rather mean-spirited take on George III’s madness. Georges III and IV were well represented here (it’s hard to talk about satire without showing Georgian cartoons, because they were so brilliant), as was Louis XVI, though I suppose in that case the satire took a darker edge, given what ended up happening to him. I was intrigued to see that there were some dollars with political messages on them here – money that has been written on is still legal currency in the US, so I spent much of my teenage years scribbling poems and punk slogans on every dollar in my wallet, and I think I would have peed my pants in excitement (to go with the bodily fluids theme) if one of those dollars had someone ended up in here, but alas, these were much more boring than my angsty defacing.

  

I did laugh out loud when I saw the brilliant Louis Philippe pear drawings though (a caricaturist noted his resemblance to a pear, so that was how he was regularly portrayed in French satirical publications). Obviously it’s much easier to see the hilarity in a cartoon than in something like a statue – Hislop told us that the one above left was definitely satirical because of the “deliberately unattractive shape of the body,” (by the standards of that culture) but I just don’t really see it, given that it just looks like a normal fertility figure. I guess maybe if I had more of a background in ancient cultures and their standards of beauty, I could have appreciated the satirical bent of some of the objects more, but frankly I think the reasons given for the inclusion of some of the artefacts were a bit far-fetched, or else merited more explanation so they didn’t seem so far-fetched, because it kind of felt like he had run out of obviously satirical objects and was clutching at straws.

   

The most famous thing here was undoubtedly the copy of the King James Bible where “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was changed to “Thou shalt commit adultery,” which Hislop definitely views as satire because he thinks it seems too perfect to be a genuine typographical error – even if he’s wrong about that, at least it was a cool thing to see. The fake artefact that Banksy put inside the BM back in the early 2000s (it took a few days for anyone working there to notice) was more obviously satirical, and the caption is pretty great.

  

There were a couple minor opportunities for interactivity, such as listening to protest songs on headphones in various places in the exhibition, or drawing a protest badge, which Marcus did to what I think is great effect. Other than that, though, it was a traditional, fairly staid exhibition, so there was certainly nothing subversive about that aspect of it. I think maybe if there had been some opportunities for object handling, or otherwise interacting with the collection, it would have helped carry the theme through a bit better than being confined to looking at things in cases, as you would in the rest of the British Museum.

  

The exhibition was fairly small (only three rooms), so it didn’t take us very long to look around. Worth 6 pounds, but definitely not 12. In the end, it seems that much of satire does just come down to fart jokes, which I certainly don’t have a problem with, but I guess it’s not very highbrow, which may have been why a lot of the reviewers took issue with it. I think it was entertaining enough, but if you’re looking for a lot of analysis, an actual “alternative history” of the world, or just want to expand your knowledge of other cultures and civilisations, this is probably not the exhibition for you, as the commentary was mainly limited to the objects themselves, with no real background or narrative. Still, I liked it a lot better than “Living with Gods,” the last exhibition I paid to see here, and there was some pretty great merchandise in the exhibition shop (in addition to the print, I got a “Truck Fump” badge). 3/5.

  

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10 comments

  1. This looks like a fun exhibit but I agree – some of it feels a stretch, especially (as you pointed out) that female figure. There’s really nothing too remarkable about its shape – I feel like I’ve seen versions of it in collections from all over the world. He’s definitely comparing it to some modern ideals he has. (Which, frankly, is a bit much coming from a small, roundish man. (Sorry, hope that doesn’t sound too shitty.))
    But I LOVE those skeletons! And the Louis Phillipe pears are hilarious – the expressions on the bottom two cracked me up.
    Bravo to Marcus for his badge. I’d happily wear one of those, as well as your Truck Fump badge 🙂

    1. Oh yeah, Ian Hislop totally looks like a giant baby, so he definitely shouldn’t be criticising anyone else’s physique.
      Truck Fump badge is already adorning my jacket. My colleague was slightly appalled that I’d stuck so many pins through my new leather jacket (since she’d witnessed the saga of me going to longingly look at it every day in the shop until I finally gave in and bought it for myself as a birthday present, despite it being really quite expensive), but what’s the point of buying it if I can’t customise it to fit my needs? Plus I’m sure I could cover up the holes with something if I really wanted to.

      1. It sounds great to me! Leather jackets are the perfect canvas for a good pin collection – I can’t imagine one without them … unless it’s some strange dressy type with a peplum or pleats or something. And even then, I think it could work.

  2. Thought of you – the Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has an exhibit called “Biting Wit and Brazen Folly – British Satirical prints , 1780’s – 1830’s. 3 rooms of terrific Georgian cartoons. I can’t say that I understand them all, but the illustrations are beautiful and most of the prints have captions explaining the humor (except the fart jokes – which seem to need no translation no matter what the time period!)

  3. Ever since I read “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” I’ve always wanted to secretly spend the night in a museum (those supervised, overnight sleepovers don’t count)- if I ever fulfill my fantasy, the British Museum is the place I want it to be.

    1. I love “From the Mixed-up Files” too, though I somehow never read it until I was an adult. I could probably spend the night in the museum I work at if I really wanted to, but I don’t think that would be much fun. The British Museum is a good choice, though I think I’d prefer somewhere with lots of interactive bits that you don’t normally get to play with because they’re too crowded during the day.

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