Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library

By Emily Beeson | 24 May 2013

Exhibition review: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, British Library, London, until September 17th 2013

A photo of an American wartime propaganda showing a general pointing forward
I want You for U.S. army (circa 1917). More than four million copies of this poster were printed between 1917 and 1918, after the United States entered World War I. It was adapted for use in World War II© Courtesy Anthony d'Offay, London
Greeted by a faceless, corridor of black, military-esque mannequins showing textual bites of information, the entrance to this exhibition generates an ominous atmosphere.

Flags bearing the merged faces of totalitarian despots and historical dictators are lit up above the dimmed ground level of the show, inferring that shadowed propaganda lurks round clandestine corners and shines from the highest points of power.

This showcase of the ways in which states attempt to sway the minds of their citizens features a powerful collection of items, along with some surprising links to contemporary visual culture; the overwhelming impact, for example, of the 2012 Olympics in London on national morale.

The show contains various video pieces in which experts speak about the striking impact of persuasive language and images on society, from the Roman era to the present day.

Well-known wartime slogans and icons such as Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam sit between compelling and fascinating lesser-known personifications of national identity.

Images of The White Haired Girl, of Mao’s infamous Communist propaganda regime, and photographs of Hitler’s youth outreach projects make quietly menacing though salient appearances.

The exhibition also focuses on the importance of figures, such as Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Jospeph Goebbels, and the career of individuals dedicated to influencing the mentality of the masses.

But not every aspect of the showcase peddles the sinister identity of the propagandist. This is, after all, an objective look at the world of political persuasion.

Some exhibits, such as a campaign sticker from the 1994 South African elections promoting Nelson Mandela as the "People's Choice" candidate, explicate the persuasive power of text and images in promoting positive social change.   

A particularly interesting aspect of the show is the highlighted significance of television and radio - in addition to the printed image, text or comic strip - in swaying social and political influence.
Opening the viewer’s eyes to the world of persuasive symbols and signifiers, satire, falsehoods, faith and a history of attempted indoctrination, this showcase not only boasts a few surprises but is also self-reflective, illustrating how the power of a single word or image can rouse a nation.

  • Open 9.30am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday and most public holidays.) Admission £9 (free for under-18s), book online. Follow the British Library on Twitter @britishlibrary. Use the hashtag #BLpropaganda.

More pictures:

A photo of a propaganda poster showing a Chinese leader standing on a seatop hill
Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan (1967). Painted when Mao was 74, this shows an event almost half a century earlier. Mao is a young man striding to single-handed victory in the 1922 miners' strike at Anyuan. It is believed to be the most reproduced painting anywhere in the world
An image of a propaganda painting showing a man reading a book on a mountain
Young Stalin reading, Viktor Golitseva, Poeziia Gruzii. Moscow (1949). The painting presented Stalin as a cultured, learned scholar. It contributes to a presentation of Stalin as the perfect leader
An image of a propaganda poster showing the statue of liberty requesting money
Liberty Calling poster stamp. War bond stamps could be mass produced and circulated widely. Liberty provided a symbol that would be understood anywhere in the United States© British Library Board
An image of a propaganda painting showing a skeleton removing a Hitler mask
Franklin Roosevelt's message to young people (illustrated with Hitler mask and skull) (1942). O.W.I. (Office of War Information, United States) USF. 4© Crown copyright
An image of a black and white drawing of a fly attacking a child advising of hygiene
Flies and Disease; Kill the Fly and Save the Child, The Medical Officer (circa 1920). London. The Medical Officer journal used striking images to promote better public health. At the time, flies were held responsible for contaminating food and spreading diseases
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