Posters and protest at People’s History Museum

In Museums on January 2, 2017 at 11:20 am

As revolutionary fervour spread across central and south America the USA had few reservations about encouraging dictatorial regimes which kept the people in their places. It’s now firmly understood that the CIA was directed to support counterrevolutionary activity in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, although the exact nature of US involvement is likely not to be uncovered for some time.

cia-cia-cia-by-paul-peter-piech-collection-of-jim-reed-steve-slackThe message of this poster ‘CIA CIA CIA’ is, however, unambiguous. The artist Paul Peter Piech (1920–96) made this print in 1983, responding to events that were unfolding in Nicaragua and, in particular, to the CIA’s involvement in the country. He raises his own hand – that’s his arm printed on the paper – directing attention to what was happening.

In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front toppled the regime of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family’s control of the country had been backed by the US for over forty years. Following the revolution commentators around the world weren’t really sure who had taken over the country – guerrillas? Leninist revolutionaries? Social radicals? Nationalists? Communists?

Amidst the confusion, the USA decided to intervene. By 1983 there’d been a huge escalation of US action in Nicaragua conducted by CIA-organised counterrevolutionaries, known as the contras. American intelligence was accused of placing bombs in public places, of plans to murder high level individuals and of plotting economic sabotage, all with the aim of destabilising the new, revolutionary government.

The US provided millions of dollars in support of the contras and the death and destruction that ensued has left a mark on Nicaragua’s relations with the successive administrations.

‘CIA CIA CIA’ doesn’t leave much to the imagination about the artist’s response to US involvement in Central and South America. This is art with a clear message.

Born in New York to Ukrainian parents, Piech initially trained as a graphic artist. After a posting to Britain during Second World War he studied printmaking at the Royal College of Art and settled in the UK. His work as a graphic designer saw him create schemes for BP, ICI and British Steel, but away from the corporate world he formed his own printworks where Piech was able explore his political beliefs and expand the art of typography. By the end of his career he was known as much as a humanitarian and campaigner as he was an artist, creating striking prints, posters, woodcuts and linocuts for the likes of the CND and Amnesty International.

The arm raised up here has ‘NICARAGUA?’ emblazoned across it.

In March 1983 Pope John Paul II visited the country and refused to condemn the contra terror. Piech takes the opportunity to move Nicaragua back into public perception.

He’s well aware of recent events in the region, hence the other arm featuring the word ‘CHILE!’

The CIA was suspected of creating propaganda and economic pressure ten years previously in Chile and there are claims the Nixon administration attempted affect the outcome of a general election there in 1973, by both hard and soft means.

Piech is taking a moment remind us that, despite warnings from history, some lessons are never learned. ‘Never again’ is a refrain we hear related to the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War – a message the world has clearly not heeded. His choice of iconography here and its suggest link to the CIA is clearly making a reference to unlearned lessons of the past.

By the time this print was made in 1983, Piech had moved beyond simply calling out something in the world he wanted to change. He’s highlighting an ongoing problem – that which he saw of American interference and imperialism.

It would be difficult to evaluate the specific impact this poster had on the US government’s multi-million dollar project to influence politics in Latin America. But Piech despised apathy and saw printmaking as part of his response to injustices and atrocities taking place around the world as part of the wider international peace movement.

Art can play a strong role in active protest. The artistic responses of the likes of Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and Banksy today provide us with alternative commentary on current events. Artists have sought to make us think differently about the world around us for generations. And in the case of this poster, they even seek to remind us of relevant historical events.

It’s important, therefore, that the pieces like this are allowed to make their way into collections. Artistic responses to events are evidence for the historians future to interpret how we respond to the world around today.

A selection of Piech’s posters, including this one, is on display at the People’s History Museum, Manchester. Dedicated to all Defenders of Human Freedoms, The Art of Paul Peter Piech is open until Sunday 17 February 2017.

Image: Collection of Jim Reed, with thanks.



In Uncategorized on September 29, 2016 at 9:28 am

Oh dear, I think I’ve been hacked. Well, technically ‘spoofed’.

A few people contacted me recently to say they’d received suspicious messages from my email address. Of course the first thing I did was panic. And then I calmed down, changed my passwords and completed gmail’s very helpful security checklist.

But then the messages kept on coming.

It seems that I’m not necessarily the victim of a hacker, more of a spoofing attack.

Google describe it really well:
“When you send a letter through the post, you generally write a return address on the envelope so the recipient can identify the sender, and so the post office can return the mail to the sender in the event of a problem. But nothing prevents you from writing a different return address than your own; in fact, someone else could send a letter and put your return address on the envelope. Email works the same way. When a server sends an email message, it specifies the sender, but this sender field can be forged. If there is a problem with delivery and someone forged your address on the message, then the message will be returned to you, even if you weren’t the actual sender.”

And that appears to be what’s happened. I’ve taken the precautionary measures that Google suggest I follow, but even they admit that spoofing can’t be stopped 100%. They assure me they’re on to it, but if you receive an email from me in error in the meantime, I’m sorry (on behalf of someone or something out there who’s using my name).

If you have any top tips on what else I might do to prevent this happening any more, I’m all ears.

Are museums good for your health?

In Museums on September 6, 2016 at 2:34 pm

If you’re poorly, it’s likely that your doctor will tell you to take some medicine. We’re used to receiving a prescription, taking it to the chemist and collecting our cure. And it’s also common for healthcare professionals to prescribe other things, such as therapeutic measures – physiotherapy, advice, counselling etc.

Today doctors were encouraged to give overweight patients ‘green space’ prescriptions to get them exercising outdoors.

But what about a trip to a museum? Have you ever heard of a doctor telling you to go see the dinosaurs or Egyptian mummies in order to effect health benefit?

It turns out it’s happening already. As part of what’s called ‘social prescribing’, healthcare professionals are directing patients to take part in activities that promote wellbeing.

Museum reminiscence projects have been helping to support people with dementia for years. Reminiscence allows people to focusing on what they have got, not what they have lost and to keep memories alive.

There’s a fair bit of interest in this area of work. University College London is part way through a three year Museums on Prescription research project (2014-2017) which is exploring the value and role of museums in social prescribing.

And there’s evidence out there already to suggest that increasing understanding and empathy for those living with and caring for people with dementia helps to promote care and compassion in the healthcare workforce.

But let’s remember that the wellbeing agenda has been a part of museum learning thinking for quite a while now. Individual museums have been delivering wellbeing projects in all but name since their inception.

A good example of this is the Art Museum in Ancoats led by Thomas Coglan Horsfall (1841-1932). The museum was a direct response to the work of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and an articulation of Horsfall’s commitment to a belief in the personal and wider social benefits of appreciating beauty through art.

Indeed, Ruskin opened his own museum in Sheffield for steel workers to visit on their days off, partly for their artistic education, but also as something pleasant to do and to feel good about themselves.

But many museum activities around wellbeing have simply been going under the radar.

It’s perhaps that work like this has been defined in a museum context, not in health context that news of it has been limited to cultural spheres. The links to the wellbeing impact that a museum visit might have, have not been made as explicitly as they could have been, or in terms that are relevant to the healthcare sector. Instead, this work has developed organically in museums and galleries, often driven by the aspiration to grow and respond to new audiences.

And so it’s really pleasing to learn there’s work now being done to join the worlds of healthcare and heritage together, to create a common language that professionals from both sectors can understand.

Imperial War Museum North’s if: Volunteering for wellbeing programme is the first major project to measure the impact of responsible volunteering in the heritage sector. The research uses a methodology called ‘Social Return on Investment’ to measure improved wellbeing in participants. The ongoing evaluation project will explore how volunteering can combat social and economic isolation and articulate the benefits for individuals, organisations and society.

The evaluation is seeking to find out exactly how the if: Volunteering for wellbeing project promotes individual wellbeing and how specifically volunteering in heritage venues contributes to this.

Using evidence like this, healthcare professionals and museum professionals will have more opportunities to link their work together. This could certainly be of benefit to the NHS, which is always looking for new methods of treating patients outside hospitals and other traditional healthcare spaces. It could benefit museums, who get to use their buildings and collections in new ways and demonstrate their relevance to society. And, most importantly, it’s of benefit for patients, who are able to access wellbeing healthcare in a new way too.

For those of us working in the heritage sector, we understand the feel-good factor that can come from a museum visit. Here’s hoping research like this will allow more people get to experience that too.