Exhibition review: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion (British Library, London)

3.00

The battle for hearts and minds, from Alexander to Chairman Mao, is quite hard on the eyes

Hear the word "propaganda" and you immediately think of the finger-pointing poster campaigns of the early 20th century, of the enlarged face of Lord Kitchener or Uncle Sam pinning the recruitment-shy with a steely glare. These days we fancy ourselves more resistant to public bullying. The recent "nudge" campaign encouraging us to complete our tax returns on time is said to have produced far better results than threats ever did.

But as a new exhibition at the British Library suggests, propaganda, though often simple enough to spot, is not so easy to define. Can it really be that "everything is propaganda", as the 1950s French political thinker Jacques Driencourt declared? Or is it strictly "biased information", as per the Pocket Oxford Dictionary's edition of 1984? What's certain is that today the boundaries between government information, advertising and PR have shifted, making way for a surprisingly potent new entrant in the arena of public persuasion – social networking.

The very wide range of exhibits here is both a strength and a stumbling block. Between a chunky bronze coin issued in 290BC bearing the head of Alexander the Great portrayed as Heracles, son of Zeus, and the entire wall, near the exit, given over to Twitter responses to last summer's Olympic opening ceremony – itself a vast piece of propaganda for brand UK – is an array of material so multifarious that it's hard to take in half of it on a two-hour visit.

So, if you also opt to plug in to every fascinating archive clip dug out by the British Film Institute (only one set of headphones is supplied for each and you have to wait your turn); if you listen end-to-end to the specially filmed interviews with key commentators such as John Pilger and Alastair Campbell; and if you also sample the two dozen national anthems offered by a menu in the wall, then you'll need to bring a sleeping bag.

More pressingly, though, you need good eyesight. What is it that persuades the designers of exhibitions to present them in semi-darkness? Yes, OK, I think I already know the answer to that: it's essential for the preservation of old works on paper. But given that so many of the pamphlets, books, cartoons, postcards, badges, games and trinkets displayed here require one to read small print or observe fine detail, visitors with anything less than 20/20 vision are at a disadvantage. A set of Czech matchbox covers, illustrating the hazards of drinking, leap out in their bright colours. But I was foxed by a sepia postcard produced in France in 1916, captioned "La Fessée" (The Spanking), since all I could see were a couple of soldiers raising their right hands. It was only on browsing the catalogue at home that I saw they were spanking the derriere of a bent-double German. He'd been invisible in the show's pervading gloom.

Humour, sometimes originally unintended, gives a sprightly feel to a topic that might seem heavy-duty. An American film short from 1949 shows a Brylcreemed politician giving an eager acolyte a lesson in electioneering techniques. Young Chuck is chummily advised of a whole raft of dirty tricks such as name-calling. "Gosh, Sir, I think it will be really interesting to conduct a serious study of propaganda," the wannabe earnestly concludes.

Other pieces show how techniques for winning hearts and minds were developed centuries ago. The grandest is a larger-than-life oil portrait of Napoleon, commissioned when his power was at a low ebb. Pointers indicate the many details that the painter hoped would help turn around his fortunes: the laurel crown (as worn by Roman emperors), the golden bees embroidered on his robe (denoting immortality), and more. Displayed alongside are some of the scurrilous caricatures Napoleon was so keen to counter.

A nice balance is struck between curiosities and the profoundly sinister. Colourful film posters from Chairman Mao's cultural revolution make light of its crimes, while a Nazi film advising in forensic detail how to spot a Jew on the street leaves you wishing it were a clever fake.

To 17 September

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?