Before Christmas, we made a trip to London, enjoyed a visit to the theatre and a couple of exhibitions, one of which is the subject of this review.
‘Disobedient Objects’ has been on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It may seem a rather staid place for an exhibition of items and materials from the past 50 years of global protest and dissent, until one is reminded that early pioneers of the Museum included the socialist William Morris and the architect Gottfried Semper, veteran of the Dresden barricades of 1849.
The curators faced a self-acknowledged challenge in creating such an exhibition. How can one ensure that the very institution in which it is displayed does not absorb the exhibits and neutralize them? The way they have tackled that question bears a close relation to the project in which I have been involved for the past couple of years on the use of Co-design in Heritage Decision-Making. As far as was logistically possible, given the global remit of the exhibition, the curators also involved activists “researching with, rather than on, communities; recognizing participants as experts and opening the research process to them” – exactly our approach. There is a healthy stress on the home-made, do-it-yourself elements of creativity, using tools and resources at hand rather than striving for the ‘professional’. The accompanying catalogue is itself a useful tool in the curators’ intentions, with contributions from a variety of sources, and well worth a read in its own right, especially if you did not get to see the exhibition.
Everyone responds in their own way, from their own experience of past involvement. I was slightly disappointed in the lack of material from early CND activities in the late 50s and 60s, perhaps because I have myself kept a couple of cheap badges from the 1967 Aldermaston Easter March and it would have been good to have seen more context. But I was delighted to see the continuity of items from Poland in the 1980s: a small Solidarnosc badge, an electronic ‘resistor’ that stood in for badges and the orange dwarf hats worn as an ironic protest in the late ‘80s. I had a reference point from experience of solidarity activities through my union branch and still keep in touch with a Polish friend from those days, and learned something about how things developed from the strikes of 1982-3, taking new forms adapting to changing circumstances. You cannot keep freedom down.
Perhaps the most fascinating ‘exhibit’ was the wall of post-it notes, labels, comments scrawled directly on the wall representing the interaction of activists and others with what was in the exhibition and what mattered to them now. It was a sign of the social undercurrents all around us which one day will maybe erupt into a process for positive change.
The exhibition only chooses to cover the past 50 years or so, but I am sure there must be older objects around in museums and collections elsewhere that relate to dissident movements as far back as the Middle Ages. Any ideas?