Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library

-This exhibition is now closed-

The British Library’s fascinating new seasonal exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, traces the history and influence of state propaganda from the ancient world to today.

Only a small section of the show is dedicated to pre-20th century propaganda, a highlight being Jean-Baptiste Borely’s 1813 portrait of Napoleon with all the status symbols of empire and power; an image created to counter the reality of the Emperor’s waning political and military authority. The exhibition hits its stride with an examination of the proliferation of propaganda during the World Wars. State propaganda images, messages and films were ubiquitous during the wars and had all sorts of purposes, whether it be recruiting troops via the famous 1917 Uncle Sam US Army recruitment poster, the scapegoating of an imagined enemy in the horrible 1940 Nazi film The Eternal Jew, or influencing behaviour on the home front, such as with the 1943 Rosie the Riveter poster designed to encourage American women to take up jobs vacated by men on military duty.

The exhibition explores how propaganda developed throughout the 20th century to consolidate political power, build nations and influence the public. The 1950 Chinese film The White Haired Girl is shown to be an embodiment of new national ideals following the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, while images of the Space Race from the 1960s are displayed as trophies of national pride and superiority during the Cold War. Some of the exhibits from more recent history are still potent, such as the doom-laden public service TV ad AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance, released by the British Government in 1987 and given substantial credit for the UK’s relatively low HIV infection rate.

Bringing the exhibition right up to the world of contemporary social media, a large-screen animation of tweets during notable events of recent years, such as the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, the Obama reelection and the recent US gun control debate, illustrates the instantaneous and widespread dissemination of political messages across the internet, highlighting Twitter’s conflicting potential as both a bastion of individual expression and a highly efficient propaganda tool.

The exhibition is open until 17 September.

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