Exhibitions and events
New special exhibition on dissent announced

We are pleased to announce our special autumn show – the Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent, which will run from 6 September 2018 to 20 January 2019.

History, as somebody wise once said, is just one damned thing after another. But is it really? Who decides what is ‘history’? Traditionally, the answer is ‘the winners’. But in this exhibition we’re investigating what the other people had to say. They left their marks on objects too – you just need to know where to look…

This is a fresh look at the collection that turns up a treasure trove of dissent in the midst of the conformity. From the ancient civilisations through to our own, there are extraordinary objects that bear witness to someone questioning the authorised version of their times and deciding to make a small though often lasting protest.

Ian Hislop

The intriguing and eclectic objects have been hand-selected by Ian Hislop, who is the exhibition’s co-curator. His diverse choices are drawn from all parts of the British Museum’s eight-million strong collection, and include everyday items alongside finely crafted works of art. Together, these objects span three millennia, charting all corners of the globe, and demonstrate that the desire to rebel is universal.

Co-curators Ian Hislop and Tom Hockenhull take a rummage in the stores, posing for what will undoubtedly feature in a future caption competition.

Ian will take you on a journey through the Museum’s collection. With his journalist’s eye for the untold story, he uncovers history’s underdogs, and bears witness to their often buried stories. At every turn these objects call into question the popular beliefs of the time, ridicule those in power and raise an eyebrow at the notion of ‘official’ history.

At first sight the British Museum seems to be a reinforcement, if not a celebration, of authority – of history’s rulers and their artefacts. I wanted to find out whether there were objects in the Museum that challenged the official version of events, that dissented from established narratives and that presented different points of view. Was there any subversive material lurking among the mummies and the monuments? The answer, fortunately, was ‘yes’.

Ian Hislop

As an institution seen to represent ‘official’ history, the British Museum also gets its fair share of scrutiny and ridicule in the exhibition, nowhere more so than in an artwork created by Banksy. The hoax piece Peckham Rock returns to the Museum 13 years after the anonymous graffiti artist installed it, without permission, in one of our galleries. It shows a stick-like figure pushing a shopping trolley, and was accompanied by a mock information label with a fake museum registration number. Having been ‘on loan from the British Museum’ for displays in London and Bristol, this exhibition marks the artwork’s return to its original home as it goes back on display, this time ‘officially’.

Banksymus Maximus AKA Banksy (b. 1974), Peckham Rock. Site-specific uncommissioned guerrilla installation for Room 49 of the British Museum. Mixed media and general cheek, 2005. © the artist, whoever he is…

This is a very neat example of dissent at the expense of the British Museum itself. Not only does it mock the pomposity of the whole process of collecting and exhibiting old artefacts, but it also suggests that you can stick anything in the Museum and no one will even notice for days. Very funny – though I am not entirely sure the Museum thought so at the time.

Ian Hislop

The exhibition shows that ridicule has been used as a form of rebellion since history began – to devastating effect. Political opponents throughout time were portrayed as weak, disrespectful of tradition and irresponsible, and one of the oldest objects in the exhibition does just that. It is a cuneiform tablet catchily known as the Verse Account of Nabonidus, after the last king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. It features a propaganda poem, an early recorded example of political slander, of the blasphemies and failures of Nabonidus. The invading Persian king Cyrus wanted to convince the local population that, although he was a foreigner, he respected Babylonian customs better than Nabonidus. Nabonidus’ fate is unknown, but unless he managed to escape into exile he was probably put to death.

Cuneiform tablet featuring the Verse Account of Nabonidus, praising Cyrus the Great. Babylon, c. 539 BC

As well as the use of objects to oppress, their role as agents for change is also a key theme in the exhibition. This is most clear in objects such as this penny, which was anonymously defaced between 1913 and 1914 by suffragettes at the height of their (ultimately successful) campaign to demand votes for women.

Penny of Edward VII defaced around 1913 to promote the suffragette cause. This bold criminal act was one of many that catapulted the movement for women’s right to vote into the political limelight.

In the centenary year of (some) women getting the vote, it seems apt to have an exhibition that opens up the conversation around those who challenged, and continue to challenge, the status quo in order to change the world. Continuing in this spirit is one of the Museum’s most recent acquisitions, a ‘pussyhat’. The pink knitted hat was worn in Washington DC on 21 January 2017 on a march demonstrating against the newly elected President Trump, which went on to become a global movement. The hat goes on display for the first time in the exhibition.

A ‘pussyhat’ worn by marchers for women’s rights in 2017.

The exhibition will also be accompanied by a three-part BBC Radio 4 series, I Object, featuring objects from the exhibition. Airing on three Saturday mornings from 11 August 2018, the series is written and presented by Ian Hislop.

The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is on from 6 September 2018 to 20 January 2019. Supported by Citi.

Book your tickets today to take advantage of the special ‘early bird’ rate of £10.

Find out more about some of the objects in the exhibition in this blog post.