Propaganda – British Library exhibition

At the weekend I visited the British Library’s exhibition: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. It was quite pricey at £9 per adult (some concessions available) and I certainly had some mixed reactions. So writing a blog post seems a very appealing way of thinking out some issues.

At the very beginning various definitions and quotations about the meaning of propaganda were displayed, such as Chomsky’s “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” The definitions varied, which seemed a perfectly appropriate way to set out a thought-provoking introduction, although I was a little troubled by an audio-visual presentation. This seemed to me to be given higher status than the rest.  Peter Johnston [sorry, this should have been David Welch – see comment below] declares to camera: “Propaganda itself is an ethically neutral idea ….”  Very likely cutting off the quotation here is unfair to him.  In a blog post of 20th August he continues by writing “… it is the content that varies.”  I felt uncomfortable at the time as it does not seem to me to be the same thing to say that propaganda can be used for a range of purposes, as to claim it is “ethically neutral.”  I’ll come back to this unease and how it developed, but in the meantime I realised many exhibits were designed to stimulate the viewer and/or listener to make up their own mind as to what might be the propaganda element or effect.

At points the interpretation seemed wilfully underplayed.  A display of material from newsreels was captioned “Films from Russia 1910-1927, courtesy of Pathé “ and that was it!  Was there ever so much tumult in one country as in that period?  Did the visitor deserve to be informed something about that, if they didn’t already know?  Were we perhaps supposed to know all about it and focus on the role of Pathé?  It was clear that this under-interpretation was entirely deliberate.  For example I used headphones to hear the soundtrack of some footage of the “Gulf War”, unmediated and unexplained.  Another newsreel about the independence of Tanganyika, again Pathé, if I remember rightly, looked now extraordinarily patronising, to put it mildly. Although I was not surprised about that, I might have found some informative comment useful.  I suppose omitting interpretation is one tactic to get the audience thinking…. But is it curating at its best?

The ubiquity of propaganda was one theme that came over quite effectively, with examples of monuments, public health campaigns and a great deal of Alastair Campbell.

I returned to my earlier unease about relativism later in the exhibition, when I came to a panel that included material about Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Nursultan Nazarbayev. I would have headed this panel, “Dictators”. Instead it was headed, “myth makers.” Part of the captioning to one of its exhibits read, “The Nazis played on the desires and fears of the German people to gain power, after which they made skilful use of propaganda to sustain popular support.”  Another caption included “…false histories may retrospectively attribute noble motivations to dubious actions and remove controversial figures from history.”  While recognising that I cannot present these extract fairly without mentioning the exhibits themselves, nor the whole context, perhaps you can understand nevertheless that I was really troubled.  “Dubious actions”??  At this point I was truly disturbed. It seemed to me just possible that a young person might visit the exhibition and have no idea of the scale of genocide presided over by some of these dictators in the twentieth century.   “Myth-makers” – a very dangerous and foolish phrase to use anywhere near some material which ought, in my opinion, have been contextualised through reference to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s massacres.  I am glad to say that to an extent my growing sense of concern, if not outrage, was assuaged by what came immediately next: a constant audio-visual showing Martin Winstone of the Holocaust Educational Trust.  This writer was interesting about the role of propaganda in Nazi Germany, its dire effects, and the pre-existing amount of anti-semitism that made its further propagation possible.  This was the beginning of a very good section on “enemies” including those “within”.

Overall, I would like to make it clear that I am convinced that the exhibition is extremely concerned with misuses of propaganda; I am not accusing them of being “ethically neutral”.  Indeed the exhibition should stimulate political and ethical thinking, including about some of the worst, as well as the best, events of recent centuries in particular.  I am not quite sure if the underplaying of interpretation, in order to be thought-provoking, is working as well as it might, in some sections of the exhibition.

I imagine everybody would find something in this very wide-ranging exhibition that they particularly liked.  I suspect what they might find most interesting might be what connects closely to their own interests; this is perhaps why there is a lot about the 2012 London Olympics.  I particularly liked 1958 Czech matchboxes and a 2013 Twitter installation called Chorus, which was both beautiful and thought-provoking.  It was produced by Field [In the first version of this post I credited it to Brunel University’s by @chorus_team to explain the comments below.  Thanks to them and Ian Cooke for the helpful corrections]

If anyone else goes to the exhibition, I’d be really grateful if they would comment and let us know how their reactions compare with mine.

Julia Gillen