Yesterday I finally had chance to visit the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A, a display I’ve been looking forward to ever since Catherine Flood first mentioned it to me at the ‘Desiring Fashion’ conference back in 2012. The exhibition explores objects used in forging and sustaining protest throughout the 20th century to the present day, and includes a number of objects associated with very recent demonstrations as well as more historic items. As such, it is one of a number of recent exhibitions exploring the material culture of dissent, including Tate Liverpool’s Art Turning Left and Jeremy Deller’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air.
While Deller’s exhibition focused primarily on industrial protest in Britain over the last three centuries, both the Tate and the V&A explored the objects associated with protest around the world, and both were weighted toward the period from 1900 onward. Disobedient Objects was, however, much smaller than Art Turning Left, but nonetheless used similar multimedia strategies to reinforce the impression of the objects in practice. Both also included spaces to practice current protest, which in the V&A took the form of a board to pin flyers, badges and so on. One visitor had used the board to voice their displeasure at pay cuts to staff in the V&A itself. There were also guides to recreating some of the practical objects on display, such as a tear gas mask made from a plastic bottle. In this way, the exhibition took a positive and activist view of protest, demonstrating a worldwide tradition of grass-roots activism using objects to express views, inform others, show solidarity and sustain a movement in the face of repression. Yet many of the objects were not just useful but beautiful, such as the arpilleras created by women in a number of movements, or the Tiki Love Truck which took a lively approach to opposing the death penalty. The vibrant creativity of different movements is evident in these physical expressions of personal commitment. Yet among the most powerful objects were those that were most simple, such as the plain red squares adopted by student protestors in Quebec. It was fantastic to see such a varied expression of people power within another major national gallery, and I hope that the obvious successes of all three of the exhibitions mentioned in this piece inspire future projects on the way in which objects can challenge power as well as sustaining it.
After the energising experience of Disobedient Objects, I was disappointed to read this morning about cuts to government funding for the People’s History Museum. These cuts had been announced a few months ago, but I became aware of them through an article in today’s Independent in which the museum express their concern that cuts have been conducted in a politicised manner. Whatever the reason for the cuts, they pose a threat to the museum’s ability to continue to provide an engaging, informative environment in which visitors can explore the history of ordinary people challenging the systems which oppress them. Learning about past protest inspires us to protect the rights we have won and to continue to fight against injustice where we find it. As such, I believe the People’s History Museum, as a rare example of a permanent display concentrating on normal people doing just this, is perhaps more important than ever if the government is as serious as it claims about preserving treasured values of British liberty and democracy. The crowds which filled Disobedient Objects on a sunny Wednesday afternoon demonstrate a real appetite for the permanent display of this kind of exhibition, while the Museum’s location in one of the underfunded regions makes its preservation at current levels all the more important. I have therefore set up a petition to restore government funding for the museum, and I hope that everyone interested in the kind of history that I explore on this blog will help with this campaign. Traditions of protest have been vital to establishing democratic rights, and remembering the struggle for these rights remains crucial to sustaining them.