'Who are the propagandists?'

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 16 May 2013 in Culture
The British Library's new exhibition 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' opens today, laying on the communicative powers of everyone from Uncle Sam to Tufty to Alastair Campbell

“Who are the propagandists?” asks a grouchy Alastair Campbell to the camera, upon ruminating on the UK press’s mistreatment of the notorious Iraq War ‘dodgy dossier’ story.

And it is exactly this question, and what propaganda has come to be and mean to us, which defines the British Library’s new and stylishly techy exhibition that opens to the public today.

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 – propaganda has always existed in substance, if not by name.

We learn it was the Catholic use of ‘propagate’ that brought the term into existence… and so begins a sinister spiral from evangelism into the excesses and often hilarities of political messaging.

Thankfully, the images so familiar to us we probably have them on a quaint mug 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, boardgames, most of which have been sheltered all this time in the British Library itself.

(Flies and Disease; Kill the Fly and Save the Child, The Medical Officer. London, c.1920)

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, although the curators have been careful to approach it as a “neutral” process of communicating information. 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 (see below).

(Freedom American-style, 1971, B. Prorokov)

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 US-led soldiers in Iraq, helping them memorise members 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 and Ladders is supposed to emulate.

The exhibition cleverly 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, demonstrating how we are now the authors of our own propaganda, buying into an online narrative, but also creating a new narrative.

Maybe I’m a little stuck with Lord Kitchener and his moustachioed fellows of a bygone age, but I felt the Twitter focus at the end of the exhibition to be a bit bathetic, considering there are surely far subtler, more traditionally ‘propagandist’ methods of messaging we are all susceptible to online – so subtle perhaps that’s why they were missed…

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

Tags: Alastair Campbell, Anoosh Chakelian, British Library, Power and Persuasion, Propaganda, Uncle Sam

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