This article is from the July 2013 issue of Total Politics

“Who are the propagandists?” asks a grouchy Alastair Campbell to camera, ruminating on the UK press’ mistreatment of the notorious Iraq War ‘dodgy dossier’ story. He is of course weighing the feral media up against himself, the Machiavellian spin doctor, regarding the ability of each to shape public thought.

And it is exactly this question he poses, in one of the many video installations, and what propaganda has come to mean to us today, which defines The British Library’s new and stylishly techy exhibition that opened to the public at the end of May.

Intended to study the past 100 years of propaganda, with WW1 being the turning-point for the subject, the exhibition actually begins with ancient Greek coins and a 2-metre tall portrait of Napoleon – it seems propaganda has always existed in substance, if not by name. It is only centuries later, and a few exhibition rooms away, that we come across videos of surprising modern pundits – Tessa Jowell and Tory commentator Iain Dale speak alongside Campbell about today’s political propaganda methods.

In the first room, we learn it was the Catholic use of ‘propagate’ that brought the term into existence, and so begins a sinister spiral from religious evangelism into the dark excesses and often hilarities of political messaging.

Thankfully, the images that are so familiar to us we probably have them on a quaint mug or jovial coaster somewhere – Uncle Sam pointing like an angrier, camper Lord Kitchener; Women of Britain Say ‘GO!’ etc – in no way dominate this exhibition of over 200 propaganda pieces: posters, film footage, books, playing cards, board games, most of which have been sheltered all this time in The British Library itself. In a merciful omission, there is not a hint of ubiquitous battle-cry of kitsch ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ in sight.

Most striking is the scale and lurid grotesque of anti-Semitic propaganda posters we are all too used to seeing, faded and apologetic, in history textbooks. The ominous power of propaganda screams like this throughout the dimly-lit exhibition, from these classic morbid cartoons of the 1930s to images of anguished infants on campaign literature from Northern Ireland. Despite this, the curators have been careful to approach propaganda as a “neutral” process of communicating information, avoiding a discussion of the morality of its methods and forms.

Also chilling are the Soviet Union’s vivid indictments of the US civil rights record during the Cold War years – the Statue of Liberty looms as a police watchtower. However, these banners of 20th-century intimidation are only the noisy minority. They are set among all sorts of inventive propagandist artefacts and contraptions. For example, the pack of cards issued by US Intelligence Services to soldiers in Iraq, helping them memorise the names and faces of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle and other figures. Then there is the feverish board game, With ‘Our Bobs’ to Pretoria, the jolly aim of which is British domination of South Africa. I hate to think what kind of psychological warfare Snakes & Ladders is supposed to emulate.

The exhibition skips smoothly through loose themes like war, enemies within, public health – the apocalyptic anti-AIDS television campaigns are certainly worth watching – all the way to a giant, rather menacing Twitter aggregator. This intends to demonstrate how we are now the authors of our own propaganda, buying into an online narrative, but also creating a new narrative. It creates an eerie infographic of world-shaking events unfolding in real-time on the site – Obama’s re-election, the Sandy Hook massacre, the Olympics opening ceremony.

Maybe I’m a little stuck with Lord Kitchener and his moustachioed fellows of a bygone age, but the Twitter focus at the end of the exhibition, though aesthetically impressive, is a bit bathetic. This is considering there are surely far subtler, more traditionally ‘propagandist’ methods of messaging from advertisers, businesses, and social media platforms themselves that we are all susceptible to online. Perhaps they are so subtle, even the curators missed them…

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is at The British Library, 17 May - 17 September 2013, Adults £9 | Under 18s free | Concessions available

Tags: British Library, Issue 60, Propaganda