Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the British Library to see their current exhibition, Propaganda: Power And Persuasion. This exhibition shares different types and forms of propaganda spanning the 20th and 21st centuries from countries all across the globe. Although the classic WWI poster depicting Uncle Sam pointing a sharp finger at onlookers is used heavily in promotion of the exhibit, you’ll find so much more to see inside.
(Please excuse my crude photography throughout this post. Cameras were not allowed within the exhibition, so I had to get creative and take photos outside of posters behind glass.)
If you’re anything like me, when you think of propaganda, your mind immediately drifts to its use in times of war to build morale, influence citizens to accept the war, and demonize other nations or people. There is a wealth of information at the exhibition on this subject, from political cartoons to radio and television broadcasts and more. During a war, propaganda becomes a weapon just as deadly as a bullet. And it appears that no country is immune to pulling the trigger, or being on the receiving end.
The Space Race and Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, Hitler surrounded by German youth being depicted as the benevolent father of the nation, and Americans in Vietnam portrayed as greedy capitalists are just a sampling of the wartime propaganda you’ll find on display at the exhibition.
Wholesome Norman Rockwell scenes urging citizens to buy war bonds, Rosie the Riveter inspiring women to chuck their aprons and get to work, and Potato Pete, the heroic potato designed to influence Britain to grow their own vegetables due to food scarcity showcase the “lighter” side of war propaganda.
However, the use of propaganda is certainly not restricted to times of war. Often it is used in times of prosperity to continue to maintain positive perceptions among a nation’s people.
Along this line, there is an excellent smaller section in the exhibition on how sports can contribute to national pride. The ability of a nation to excel in sports symbolizes their health and strength, and as a byproduct, their power. Paying particular attention to the effect hosting the Olympics has on a nation’s self pride, there are multiple videos to watch about the games held in London in 2012 and information about how China’s turn hosting gave them the opportunity to showcase the benefits to communism and their advances in technology.
My favorite section of the exhibition came at the end with classic public service announcements from the last thirty or so years. I’d never really considered public health recommendations and things of that variety to be under the blanket term of propaganda, but at its most basic definition, propaganda is purposeful persuasion. And I suppose that is exactly what is happening when China campaigns for “One is Enough” to try to reduce the growing population, and public health organizations attempt to tell mothers how to raise their children. There is a particularly funny advertisement in this section using nuns to urge sexually active adults to use protection. (Just follow the chuckling of other visitors – you’ll see what I’m talking about.)
From a coin dating back to 290 BC portraying Alexander the Great as Hercules to your own Twitter feed, it’s clear that propaganda has and will continue to be around for a long time. Gruesome or humorous, a truth or a lie, an appeal to pride or a play on fears – propaganda can come in many forms and play on every emotion. If you can believe the French political thinker, Jacques Driencort, when he says, “Everything is propaganda,” you’ll begin to see it in more places than you’d think!
Take advantage of the dwindling crowds as Propaganda: Power And Persuasion draws to a close, and allow yourself a minimum of two hours inside to really see all that is on display. Admission for adults is only £9 and children under 18 are free. Last day to see the exhibition is September 17th.
We were guests of The British Library, but all opinions and amateur photos are our own.