phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
Advertisement

Interview with Curator of Propaganda at British Library

4 June 2013 Tom Hunter

We caught up with Ian Cooke, Curator of Social Science at the British Library on their Propaganda exhibition.

Without you realising, propaganda is all around us. it is used for many reasons, good and bad; it is used to fight wars and fight disease, build unity and create division. Whether monumental or commonplace, sincere or insidious, propaganda is often surprising, sometimes horrific and occasionally humorous. While it’s never neutral, it can be difficult to define and identify.

With the opening of the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition we spoke to Ian Cooke, Curator of Social Science at the British Library. 

 

London Calling: What was the original impetus behind the exhibition, and has it changed much along the way?

Ian Cooke: Originally we were just aware that we had a lot of visually very strong material from around the world that we could show - and that we wanted to show a side of the Library that gets a bit less attention. Eg posters, recorded sound, leaflets and other ephemera. As we were working on narrowing down our themes, and talking to potential contributors, it became increasingly clear that we had a topic that was important and urgent today - and something that people wanted to talk about and enjoyed talking about.

LC: What is the oldest piece of propaganda material featured in the exhibition?

IC: The oldest object in the exhibition is a Greek coin from c.290 BC, issued by Lysimachus, a successor to Alexander the Great. It portrays Alexander as Herakles, the son of Zeus - so it's using powerful and easily-recognised symbols to associate Lysimachus with Alexander, and through Alexander, to the gods. We were interested in seeing propaganda in places that you might not expect, in everyday objects.

LC: We have the (misguided?) idea that the power of propaganda has become diluted in recent years as people become more media savvy, but is this really true?

IC: I think that it's true that we are better able to recognise propaganda as it appears in 'traditional' forms, eg as a poster or as a film. However, the nature of propaganda (or successful propaganda) is to move into new types of media or ways of communicating. Our exhibition ends by asking the question - if we can recognise propaganda as it moves between print and film, can we see it also in the most popular forms of communication today, eg in social media? Our installation 'Chorus' presents Twitter messages in a way that you have never seen them before.

LC: George Orwell once famously called advertising “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket” but the exhibition contains many examples of positive persuasion. Were you careful to maintain a balanced or neutral position in your presentation of propaganda materials?

IC: Although we don't present a single view or conclusion on the nature of propaganda (it's far more interesting to have that debate yourself as you go through the exhibition), we did want to challenge some of the more common reactions that people have to the word. Eg that it's always bad and/or only practised by the "bad guys". In our Health section, you'll see lots of examples of campaigns that are aiming to get you to stop smoking or eat more healthily or to drink less. Many people say that that's not propaganda - but it is aiming to change behaviour and attitudes, and it does use similar methods (shock tactics, humour, demonisation). So, if it's not propaganda, what is it?

In the way we present, we were trying to keep a balanced tone and focus more on what the challenges and context were around any particular exhibit, and to analyse methods and, where we could, success or otherwise.

LC: While many people claim to ignore, or even be immune to, advertising messages, would a world without the persuasion industry really be the utopia some people imagine?

IC: It's interesting to think about what sort of world wouldn't have need of a persuasion industry. Would we all have the same values and the same way of seeing things? Would all of our priorities be complimentary? David Welch, who wrote the book which accompanies the exhibition, argues that you can analyse propaganda as something which is itself ethically neutral. It's just a tool which is used by all states (and not just by states). Any discussion of morality comes from primarily the objectives to which the propaganda is put. But there is an important qualifier, which is that propaganda operates differently in different sorts of states - and the ability to comment and criticise, or restrictions on free speech, affects both the operation of propaganda and how you evaluate it.

A lot of propaganda operates by closing down the space for discussion - you reduce an issue and possible solutions to the set of things that you want people to focus on. So, the power relationship between communicator and audience is important. Some would argue that social media, by giving every person potentially equal access and footing in communication, is creating something like that utopia. Others would disagree.

LC: And finally, what are your own favourite pieces in the exhibition?

IC: My favourite pieces are a collection of ephemera related to the first majority elections in South Africa in 1994 - these had an extremely important job to do in conveying the message that the state in South Africa had changed and that elections would bring about genuine change. Many South Africans had had experience in voting for administrations that had little independence, and we show a voter education comic book that explains how the 1994 election would be different. It does it very clearly through portraying a conversation between farm workers. The party election material we show also demonstrates how images of a new country were being used in that first bid for popular support.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is on at the British Library from 17 May - 17 September 2013. 

{ad-placement-MPU1}

Most popular

What to See at The Cinema

What to See at The Cinema

Your go-to guide to what's on the silver screen
Advertisement
Top 5 Bars and Restaurants for Shisha-Lovers

Top 5 Bars and Restaurants for Shisha-Lovers

The five finest spots in London to shoot the breeze and pass the pipe
Advertisement
The Best Riverside Walks In London

The Best Riverside Walks In London

Oh we do like to be beside the canalside...
Advertisement
Advertisement
Top Theatre of the Week

Top Theatre of the Week

Where to get the best of new theatre openings in London
Top Exhibitions of the Week

Top Exhibitions of the Week

The place to come for all the best current exhibitions in London...
London’s Must-See Flower Shows in 2019

London’s Must-See Flower Shows in 2019

With the balmy weather here to stay, why not take in the sumptuous beauty that these London flower shows have to offer
Top Gigs of the Week

Top Gigs of the Week

From underground indie to rap stars to house legends, we've got you covered...
Where to Eat: Desserts in East London

Where to Eat: Desserts in East London

Even if the Easter bunny doesn’t visit your garden this month, there are plenty of ways to get your sweet fix this springtime
Where to Eat for a Fiver or Less

Where to Eat for a Fiver or Less

We go on a mission to find the absolute cheapest eats in London

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!

Advertisement