Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The British Library does alright with propaganda for the teens

Took Tiger, Shark, and Squirrel to the British Library for Propaganda: Power and Persuasion.

With some trepidation, admittedly.

How would my little gritties take to it? Like all British Library exhibitions it is not especially aimed at children. Worthy, weighty, document-heavy, it offers plenty of spotlit text to peer at, as you fumble around in a semi-darkened room crashing into people.

Worse, British Library exhibitions attract adults who like to tut. People who have higher scholarly purposes which could be fulfilled if only the rest of humanity didn't get in the way of the captions. Do not assume the academic types are child-friendly, as Tinkertop tips headlong into them, blinded by the sudden transition between spotlights and atmospheric pools of total darkness.

But I still take my little grits. I know it is never likely to amuse the children with a selection of interactive, button-jabbing delights - press here to animate your government message and see a pop-up Stalin with his spinning head - but I am forever optimistic that if there is a challenge, we intrepid explorers in the land of learning can rise to it.

Thankfully, the British Library more or less adopts the same approach. Given the subject - isn't propaganda, power, and persuasion about as wide an area as you can imagine? - the BL attempts to make it approachable, even from a Junior Grit's point of view.

To start us off, we get an easy-to-follow guide on how to create your own propaganda. It was extremely helpful to me as average parent instructing the national yoof, and I would recommend the beginning section alone to justify taking in your juniors, if only to teach them some techniques for spotting the spin from your average government minister.

The British Library then offers a selection of Alastair Campbell's talking heads to distance itself from a few opinions and raise a few issues. Inbetween is thrown at us an assortment of old posters, documents, paintings, and videos, navigating a way through a variety of contexts, from how to hate the Germans properly in WW2 to how to cross the road with Tufty the Squirrel in 1963.

This was my other nagging fear: would the Gritties Jnrs at their tender age of 13 take it all literally? Would they appreciate the contexts? Would they come out having failed to spot the meta-text, having bypassed the whole 'read between the lines' thing, to urge me to hate Germans and, by the way, I have totally failed Tufty Fluffytail's first law of motor traffic?

It is no small worry. My proto-teens still have their tender sensibilities intact: they have not yet reached the jaded and cynical, government-withered stage of my existence, with my blood now combined from vinegar, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda. I especially fretted about this in front of the Nazi propaganda video of how to identify a nasty Jew, and the USA's Norman Rockwell posters of homely dinners, dished up by a pink-cheeked grandma in her fresh white apron, showing sublimely how America has the answer to everything, and it is wholesome. Visuals like this remain impactful.

Me, I was grateful to be out in the fresh air after two hours; relentless persuasions on my deviant behaviours issued to me from self-assured authorities is a little wearing on my brain, even though I can still see the hilarity in some of the injunctions, such as the Protect and Survive posters of 1970s and 1980s Britain. When I looked around for the Gritties Jnrs, expecting them to be waiting glumly outside, they were still in the exhibition room, reading everything, listening to Alastair Campbell's head, and complaining when I dragged them out.

Verdict for your teens? On the way home, Squirrel narrowed her eyes at me and demanded to know what I was up to? Wasn't the home ed workshop enough? What was my secret intention?

So that suggests to me the British Library have somehow made Propaganda: Power and Persuasion accessible to your average anti-authoritarian 13-year old. Take them. They should do fine, and we all just have to ignore the tuts.

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