This autumn, a major new exhibition at the British Museum promises to be both profoundly thought-provoking and very funny. Located moments from The Montague on the Gardens, The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent showcases satirical, anti-authority artefacts that have been handpicked from the museum’s extensive collection by British broadcaster and journalist Ian Hislop. From an ancient Roman oil lamp to work by Banksy, the items on display explore what it means to question authority and the importance of civil liberties throughout history. Here, co-curator of The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent, Tom Hockenhull explains the ideas behind the show and shares his guide to the works on display.
How did the idea for I object come about?
“It was the idea of the former director, Neil MacGregor. He fancied something a bit different and that looked beyond history’s rulers and great civilisations. He wanted to bring in someone external to help curate the show and bring fresh eyes."
Why do you think it’s important to highlight historical objects of dissent and subversion in 2018?
“Where people have challenged their rulers, religions and cultural codes, there has almost always been an equal and opposite reaction attempting to preserve the status quo. We need to acknowledge that the quest for democracy and civil liberties is something that is on-going. The freedom to question authority cannot be taken for granted, and history shows this.”
Ian Hislop served as a co-curator for the exhibition. How did the collaboration come about?
“Ian’s involvement came right at the beginning. Neil realised that the British Museum couldn’t put on a show about dissent without doing things a bit differently. Ian was the natural choice – as editor of Private Eye for 30 years and a panelist on Have I Got News For You, he’s been poking fun at authority his entire career.
What are your highlights from the exhibition?
“I think a satirical print showing John Bull farting in the face of the King pretty much encapsulates the themes of the show.”
How did you go about narrowing down your selection of objects from the museum’s extensive collection?
“It was really hard and has taken more than three years. The first year or so we simply toured the collection, going into basement and off-site stores. There are more than eight million objects in the museum, many of which are not on display. In the end, we based a lot of our decisions on Ian’s initial reaction upon encountering an object. A laugh, smile or nod of approval from him at an object’s audacity pushed it to the top of the list.”
The British Museum is perceived by many as a treasured British national institution. How does this square up with the non-conformist, anti-authority items on display?
“The British Museum is a museum of the world – it is the best starting place for a conversation about what it means to think and act against authority, wherever and whenever people have lived because our collection is full of these stories.”
What impressions do you hope visitors to the exhibition are left with?
“I hope not so much for an impression, but a reaction – I would like to see people leaving the exhibition with a smile. It shows us that time and again, laughter really is the best way to cope with some of life’s injustices.”
Early-bird tickets for The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent at the British Museum from 6th September 2018 – 20th January 2019 are available here for £10. Under-16s go free.
Image Credits: All images courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum.