Good Design » Documenting Social Unrest at the Museum of London

© Museum of London

Well it’s been quite an action-packed week here at Good Design which has resulted in me covering not one but two live events for your reading pleasure! More on the other event in the second post. Live events are something I have been very keen to get into as part of extending the reach of Good Design and so I am delighted to have been invited to these events and to be able to bring you the Good Design scoop on them. Hopefully they will be the first of many!

First up is ‘Occupation and Protest: Documenting Social Unrest’ which took part last Monday, March 26th, at the Museum of London. The evening was held on the anniversary of the march against the devastating conservative cuts in 2011 (one of the largest demonstrations of recent times). The Museum of London has recently incorporated twelve placards from the Save Our Placards project into its permanent collection and the focus of discussion was on how the museum could continue to document social unrest in the coming years. The panel was eclectically mixed, hosted by Kurt Barling of BBC London News and comprising of Turner Prize winner, Jeremy Deller, Morning Star Journalist Rory Mackinnon and Dr Cathy Ross, the Museum of London’s Director of Collections. Guy Atkins, founder of Save Our Placards kicked off the evening by running through a short bit of background on the project, highlighting that the placards had been given to them by the protesters rather than being selected by the project.

© Museum of London

The discussion moved on to what exactly is a museum’s role in documenting social unrest. Does a museum have a political stance or, as Jeremy Deller quipped tongue-in-cheek, is it  ’neutral, like the BBC’. The general consensus, backed by Dr Cathy Ross, was that a museum has to be a neutral entity where people can make up their own mind as to what role objects played in the politics of the time. It was also very interesting to hear Jeremy Deller’s thoughts on his own method of documenting unrest through his art, taking a naturally detached stance from the action and choosing to comment on rather than live the life of activism.

© Museum of London

Towards the end of the evening a few audience members commented on the sense of detachment which can be associated with objects of protest once they are in the confines and constraints of museum casing. When taken out of context the ephemera could feel lifeless and cold, with one commentator going as far as to say that ‘the content was weak and lacked character compared to the placards of the seventies’. I had to agree that seeing them static on a stage in an auditorium did give an impression of their being removed from their original purpose, however I think that had more to do with the time constraints of organizing the evening and was not a point worth dwelling on. The character and personality of the placards’ creators shone through, with the brilliant “NO TO ALL THIS JAZZ” by Iain Whiteley (depicting David Cameron with movable jazz hands) particularly standing out as an example of the homemade placard,when done well, still having pride of place in the modern protest.

© Museum of London

Overall I think the evening raised some very interesting questions around documenting social unrest and left me with some much welcome food for thought, one of the most compelling questions for me being what constitutes a great, effective placard? From a design perspective it was interesting to learn that more classically trained designers are now getting into placard making and as a result we are seeing cleaner, more graphically considered placards appearing in today’s protests. I tend to think however that there is a time and a place for graphic consideration and minimalism and I’m not sure it’s a placard. For me a placard is really at its best when it’s full of personality and humour, with biting satire at the heart of its message. And if that means that it’s slapped onto cloth with a paint brush then so be it. It’s about being human and standing up for what we believe in. And if we get more of those type of placards then I for one can’t wait to watch the Museum of London’s collection grow.

© Museum of London

Photography by:
John Chase
Senior photographer at the Museum of London