Ian Hislop's objecting objects
For this exhibition I wanted to find out whether there were objects that challenged the official version of events, defied the established narrative and presented a different view. Was there actually subversive material lurking among the mummies and the monuments? I’m pleased to say that the answer was ‘yes’…
I was taken by my parents to see the great Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum, and I was hugely impressed with the tragic dynastic glamour of the royal tomb. Now, as an adult, I have chosen to put in this exhibition a somewhat different Egyptian artefact. It is an ostracon, a stone fragment used to write or draw on, possibly made by a tomb builder. The maker has mimicked the formal funerary style used to portray the pharaohs, but has instead depicted a man and a woman doing something more, well, life-affirming.
Right under your nose
One of my favourite objects is an example of dissent more or less hiding in plain sight. I passed it in the galleries and thought it was beautiful, but had no idea that there might be any hidden meaning within it. It is the Stonyhurst salt, an elaborate piece of tableware created from recycled reliquaries.
The object was made in England in the 1570s, at a time when Catholic worship had been banned. It is passing itself off as a salt-cellar, but on closer examination this is clearly unconvincing. How many salt-cellars were made from silver gilt and decorated with rock crystal – the emblem of Christ’s purity – and rubies that look exactly like drops of blood – Christ’s blood to be exact? It is obviously a piece of outlawed Catholic ornamentation pretending to be something else. Presumably it gave its owners a huge amount of satisfaction at the dinner table.
(Literally) in your face
However, there are some items in this exhibition that you can appreciate almost immediately. This British satirical print from the eighteenth century showing John Bull, the embodiment of Britain, farting at a portrait of George III is not too difficult to decipher. The English do love a witticism about breaking wind, and Newton’s unsubtle joke is a perfect example of ‘in your face’ comedy – the country is depicted, literally, farting in the King’s face.
When I was younger I was terrified of the huge bearded winged figures in the Assyrian galleries, who had the heads of humans and the bodies of bulls. In this exhibition there is a rather more humble piece of ancient sculpture – this Babylonian brick in fact – inscribed with the name of the king, in accordance with regulation. But in an act of defiance, the maker has carved his own name on the brick as well, to suggest, I think, that it is no less silly for him than for the great ruler to commemorate himself on such an item. The brick was then put in a wall and was probably never meant to be seen again, so we have no idea if ‘Zabina’ showed his handiwork to his friends and they shared a laugh at his audacity, or whether he did it entirely in secret. I like the thought that this brickmaker, nearly 2,500 years ago, quite literally made his mark on the world. It’s a fantastic, very ancient, small act of rebellion.
A wicked Bible?
Sometimes we cannot be sure whether an act of dissent is deliberate, or the result of an innocent mistake. This 1631 edition of the King James Bible, published under the names of Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, is known as the ‘Wicked Bible’ owing to a printing error in the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) that states: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ Elsewhere at Deuteronomy 5:24 another misprint changes ‘God’s greateness’ to ‘God’s great asse’. You can either believe that this is the most unfortunate mistake in the entire history of printing, or you can believe that it was deliberate. Of all the possible errors, one just happens to occur in the middle of the Ten Commandments in the bit about whether you can have sex with other people or not. Coincidence does not extend that far. I don’t buy it!
The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is open until 20 January 2019.
Supported by Citi.
Find out more about the exhibition and book your tickets today.