Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

British Library

Attended: Saturday 18 May 2013

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The British Library’s new exhibition on Propaganda: Power and Persuasion claims to be “the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries”. I find this claim hard to believe, given how pervasive and deconstructed propaganda is to the Twitter generation. Notwithstanding, the exhibition pulls together an interesting array of primary materials from England and beyond to interrogate how the State seeks to control its subjects.

The entrance to the exhibition has the viewer walking across a projection of germ cells on the floor and then through some mannequins with various quotes about propaganda printed directly on the body, suggesting that propaganda is a contagious affliction which infects most of us from a very early age.

 The exhibition includes some fantastic cartoons, songs, radio programmes, paintings, speeches and more. My personal favourite was a radio broadcast from some thrifty Cockney housewives during World War II discussing how to cook a joint of mutton to make it taste like turkey for Christmas… Mmmm… Nearby, an early film advertisement for Australian wine made me a little homesick, and thirsty.

Fittingly for an English exhibition, Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell takes a prominent role providing commentary in many of the video installations included. Despite this, the exhibition appears to have a 20th Century focus, reporting on many of the tactics of propaganda (such as wartime drops of pamphlets over France or Britain) as if they were a historical relic, and not something which occurs now in Iraq and Afghanistan. This approach suggested a divide between society’s earlier willingness to accept propaganda without question, and a more knowledgeable contemporary audience – and it’s a divide that I don’t agree exists.

A few exhibits, such as the breakdown of a painting of Napoleon labelling the different motifs linking him to power, smacked of a high school history assessment. The great strength of the collection though, is that it forms a jumping off point for discussion. Given the countless examples which are available of 20th and 21st Century propaganda, the British Library’s selection is a lively and entertaining representation. 

The final installation, which visually represents the world’s most re-tweeted comment ever, “Four More Years” from Barack Obama in 2012, was an inspired way to close the exhibition. The scale of it, with the initial tweet expanding and multiplying across four large flatscreens, generates slight nausea, and awe. It echoes the germs we walked through at the entrance and suggests that, perhaps, we are just lemmings and always will be.

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