How many of your “five a day” have you had so far today? Did you avoid running for your train in the rain last night, knowing the station floor might be slippery? Or maybe you felt a twinge of nationalism handing over the Queen’s smiley face on a fiver for your morning coffee? Propaganda, it seems, is everywhere. The British Library’s new exhibition provides an exploration of the persuasive power of this state tool, looking at examples from ancient Rome to the present day.
Curators at this impressive new show have taken what they describe as a “neutral” definition of the word, embracing all activity by the state to influence behaviour, whether for good or evil. So, alongside troubling posters from Nazi Germany and Northern Ireland in the 1980s are gentler examples of state persuasion about the benefits of drinking milk and adhering to the Green Cross Code. Chairman Mao’s much-reproduced mythology is analysed, as are uses of the Olympic Games (in London and elsewhere) as a method of promoting national identity.
While the main focus of the exhibition is on propaganda since World War I, there are examples from earlier in history: a coin from the third century BC; a huge portrait of Napoleon; and a curious fan from the reign of George III.
Of the 200-odd items on display, around 80% are from the Library itself. But rather than an exhibition of various tantalising books in cases, Propangada: Power and Persuasion instead features a plethora of posters, paintings, flyers, film, songs, audio and more. Day-to-day ephemera like paper bags and coins are included, as well as playing cards, board games, and TV adverts. And a variety of persuasive techniques (make ‘em laugh, appeal to family values, create a sense of fear) are also on show. A particularly striking example is the Aids television campaign from the 1980s, narrated by John Hurt. And there’s an interesting roster of interviewees on screens adding to the debate, including Alastair Campbell, John Pilger, Tessa Jowell and Noam Chomsky.
The exhibition’s final display is about the power of social media and, in particular, Twitter. An installation called Chorus shows tweets from recent events including the Olympic Opening Ceremony and the Sandy Hook shootings. Curator Ian Cooke wonders whether we are all propagandists now, as we all take part in the dissemination of information, sometimes without even really considering its provenance.
It’s a great show. We’d like to persuade you to go along if that didn’t mean we were simply getting in on the act too. In fact, if you want to get really meta, we recommend (see?) you look out for the IWM's loaned Roland Pitchforth painting encouraging people (again!) to see a Wings for Victory exhibition (and again!) in Trafalgar Square from the 1940s. Propaganda: it seems it really is everywhere.
Propaganda: Power and Persuasion runs from 17 May to 17 September at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB. Tickets cost £9/£7 and £5 for concessions. Under 18s go free. Visit bl.uk/propaganda for more details. There’s a fun-sounding programme of events associated with the exhibition: check the website for more details.