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Review: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

15th August 2013 10:07:54

The British Library’s Propaganda exhibition opened on the 17th of May and closes on the 17th of September. The British Library say that their "propaganda exhibition brings together a fascinating examination of propaganda and its use throughout the 20th and 21st centuries." I wanted to find out if it did.

As I approached the British Library the first thing I saw was a large banner with an ominous picture of Uncle Sam on it, who seemed to be watching over anyone who entered the exhibition. Then entering through the main doors I passed a rack for people to measure their rucksacks in, stating that anyone with a bag too big wouldn’t be allowed in. It seemed ironic that a building which no doubt creates fear with its hyper-awareness of possible attack would be hosting an exhibition on propaganda. At this point I was concerned about the exhibition, it had previously occurred to me that it could be Western biased, only showing enemies of Britain and America’s use of propaganda and ignoring the West’s use of it. After seeing the bag sizing apparatus and the security guard monitoring it I was sure that my concerns would be true. I was wrong.

Upon entering the exhibition you walk over a projection of germs on the floor before passing between two rows of faceless mannequins. Several of these have quotes about propaganda written on them, with the quoted ranging from Goebbels to Jacques Driencourt. The one which I found the most pertinent and revealing about the exhibition was a quote from Noam Chomsky in which he states his belief that "Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state."

This quote set the tone for the exhibition. It was not biased towards the west. It was not biased against it. It was simply an exhibition detailing propaganda through time and in different countries around the world. The exhibition was split up in to six parts: origins, nation, enemy, war, health and today.

It was incredibly interesting to see the imagery and language used by such a range of countries in to trying to move control public opinion. There were several pictures which had been annotated to draw attention to ploys used to persuade populations which was hugely interesting. In some of these the subtle tactics that were being highlighted would have been hard to notice otherwise. Although the language of propaganda has always been something which has interested me, what really won me over in this exhibition was the art of it. There were some posters which had been used solely as a tool of persuasion, but would have stood alone as a piece of art. One poster, published in Russia, showed a picture of the Statue of Liberty’s face with a New York police officer looking out of each eye. As well as being powerful in its message, it was haunting and commanding in its appearance. It was a piece of art.

There were weak points of the exhibition. I felt the ‘origins’ section was trying to cover too much of a time period which made it feel thin. I did not find it hugely engaging, and felt it was quite disjointed in its presentation. I was also quite disappointed with the ‘today’ section. There were only really three things to look at. Two front pages about the Iraq war were framed on a wall. There was an interesting screen which showed twitter reaction to big news stories over the year. The last item in the section was my favourite in the exhibition. It was Harold Pinter’s notes for his Nobel Prize lecture in 2005. I found these a perfect representation of public frustration with the Iraq war, and was almost anti-propaganda. But Pinter was not enough to excuse the sparse nature of this section.

All in all though, I believe the exhibition was a triumph. It offered a balanced and interesting collection of propaganda through time. Though it did lack depth in certain areas, it presented a whole and fair collection of propaganda and was also a celebration of the skill and art of the people who have so subtly controlled the public for so long now. I would highly recommend it to anyone.


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