Manga Madness: An after hours look at the British Museum’s Manga Exhibit

One of the perks of my new job at the Jewish Museum in London is that the staff get invited to exclusive events within the museum community, often this includes free entry and after hours viewing of museum exhibitions. As any sane person would, I try to take advantage of these perks as much as I can (to the point where I probably annoy my co-workers asking what other things we get for free). One of the most recent invitations was to an after hours community evening at the British Museum to view their Manga exhibit. This luckily coincided with my manga-mad sister Lauren visiting me for a few days, so we hurried along to the British Museum for my sister to see some of her favourite manga comics displayed, and for me to learn more about this art form.

Manga interpretation of Alice in Wonderland

Firstly, I need to admit that I knew next to nothing about manga comics so I was pleasantly surprised about how accessible the exhibition was to me, a non-fan of the art form. As soon as you enter the exhibition you are informed about where manga is said to have originated and how to read manga (for a beginner). There is no specific origin of the Manga art form as one could argue, the style of drawing has always been present in Japanese art. The comics are read from the top right to bottom left hand side of the pages and the museum had fun, engaging images displaying this.

How to read manga from top right to bottom left!

You then, have interviews by prominent figures in the manga community explaining how manga became such an important part of Japanese culture and why it has, in recent years, a wider appeal to western society with Studio Ghibli films and cartoons such as Pokemon having had a big impact on adult and children’s entertainment in the last twenty years. One thing that was notable is the spotlight that was shone on female manga artists who have made strides in a male-dominated field to make girl-comics more mainstream and open the genre to include young women.

One artist, Hagio Moto, was featured as the leading author of shōjo (girls) manga. She published her first manga, Rulu and Mimi, in 1969, aged 20. She is a key member of the Year 24 Group who are said to have revolutionised shōjo manga in the 1970s. Hagio also writes in other genres such as Boys Love which is a popular homoerotic genre. Such pioneers show that the Museum is succeeding in showcasing multiple aspects of the manga universe and not just the male-dominated mangas that are well-known to the West.

There were the well known favourites such as Astro Boy which is manga-master Tezuka Osamu’s most popular manga and anime series. Astro Boy is one of the most well-known characters in the manga world and has had many spin offs as well as being adapted into Hollywood films. Other favourites, such as Deathnote and Attack on Titan were also featured in the exhibit, Attack on Titan being represented by the unnerving giant head of a Titan.

Lauren really appreciated that there was a manga library in the middle of the exhibit where visitors could sit down and peruse the different manga genres and different popular titles. This was also a massive positive for me, getting to actually read the comics after finding out more about the process behind it and finding out about the authors made me appreciate and take an interest in manga. There was even a comic about the British Museum where Professor Munakata (one of Japan’s most popular manga characters) investigates the disappearance of the Stonehenge megaliths. His investigation leads him to the British Museum where there is a plot that puts the Rosetta Stone in grave danger!

I would definitely recommend a visit to this informative exhibition. As someone who had no idea about manga comics I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this genre of art and it was great to be able to experience this exhibition with a fan of manga, my sister.


The Foundling Museum: An insight into how it can be experienced by children

The exterior of the Foundling Museum. Courtesy of the Museum website

The Foundling Museum was created to enlighten the public on the history of the Foundling Hospital that was established in 1739 by Thomas Coram. The aim of the hospital was, as Colley states, ‘to rescue young lives that would otherwise be wasted and render them useful to the state’[1]. The history of foundlings has often been left out of the national narrative, thus the museum was established to shed light on the history of the ‘forgotten children’ of London and brought the history of foundlings into the national memory. Funkenstein argues that ‘collective awareness presumes collective memory’[2], thus by attempting to raise the awareness of the history of foundlings, the museum is attempting to re-insert it into our collective memory. The museum aims to educate children on this specific aspect of the past as they would be the same age as those who were taken in there and tries to evoke thought and empathy.

As the museum tries to make children relate to those of the past it is wondered whether children could relate at all given all the luxuries of modern society. The contrasts of childhood could prevent the child from engaging with the exhibits and putting themselves in the place of the foundlings. The museum provides a variety of interactive services to help children reflect on the past lives of those who were admitted into the Foundling Hospital. However, whether they are effective in engaging the child in experiencing empathy or any cathartic experience is another question beyond the scope of this investigation.

The museum aims to show the public what it was like for some working class and illegitimate children, to be brought up with very little to no recollection of their parents, their only connection to their past life being a token that the mother would have left with the child on the day that she gave him or her to the hospital. As adults, we could comprehend the harrowing tales of mothers leaving their children, but it would be more difficult for a child to experience the museum in the same way and understand the social history that the museum reflects. Throughout the museum you could see a range of interactive stations specifically catered for children to make the experience fun but with the added aim to make them reflect on what it was like for the foundlings and how they experienced growing up in a foundling hospital. The children could dress as a foundling, showing them the uniforms of the children with no choice of alternative dress, they could see the bed of a foundling child indicating what little comfort the hospital could provide the vast numbers of children admitted and they could create their own token, reminding them that tokens were often the only connection that these children had with their mothers and their previous life. According to Tosh, there is now a ‘keen understanding that the public experiences history visually – directly through the material remains of the past’[3], thus by showing tokens, beds and clothing that the foundling children actually used, the museum is heightening experience that the children gain and thus inserting the narrative of the foundling children into the scope of public history.

Girls in the Foundling Museum. Image courtesy of the Museum website

What was immediately noticeable, was that plaques were aimed specifically for children to make them engage with the exhibits and aimed to provoke thought. Such plaques prompted questions like: ‘When children came to the hospital they were given new names. Why is your name important and how would you feel if it was changed?’, showing that the museum can be experienced on a profound level by the child visitors. Questions that help the children understand what children their age went through during the period of the Foundling Hospital give us a unique insight into the thought process of children experiencing the museum by witnessing how they react and what questions they ask to try and get a better understanding. This helps us to understand how they understand the exhibits around them Questions such as; ‘Imagine how you would feel if you were a child living cold and hungry on these streets. What would frighten you?’ directly makes children feel a range of emotions and provokes the sense of empathy showing them that these experiences were real for some children their age. This idea of specifically aiming questions at the children harmonises with Gowing’s point that the plaques are aimed to make the children display a range of emotions and puts them into the narrative of the museum[4].

Another way in which the museum aims to engage children into learning about the history of the foundlings is through literary and television characters. Jaqueline Wilson, the children’s author, bases numerous characters on foundlings and orphans, characters like Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather are well known household names to young children and the museum takes advantage of their links with Wilson by housing first drafts of ‘Hetty Feather’ in their exhibit. Wilson has strong connections with the museum, and the museum advertises this in their brochure with direct quotes from the author herself: “I think the foundling Museum is one of the most fascinating and touching museums, giving you a real sense of what it must have been like to be a foundling child”[5]. This reinforces the assertion that the Foundling museum is experienced by children through empathy and helps children discover what foundling children would have experienced in the hospital, which is the museum’s main aim, to shed light on the untold story of the forgotten foundling children and to help the public gain an experience of what it was like for these children. Wilson also draws in on main features of the museum like the staircase and describes how she can imagine her characters living there and interacting with the museum; “The museum has a very large wooden staircase, which was there when it was a hospital. Every time I go up there I imagine Hetty creeping up and down the stairs, or sliding down the banisters.”[6] References like these help visitors and indeed children visualize children actually living in the hospital and gives a more personal connection with artifacts and exhibits within the museum itself.

Hetty Feather book featuring the Foundling Hospital. Image courtesy of Penguin Publishers

In the café the use of children’s characters to evoke a personal connection with the museum is made more apparent as the walls are filled with phrases such as ‘Harry Potter was an orphan’, ‘Rapunzel was fostered’, and ‘Superman was adopted’. Well loved characters throughout history and every literary genre appear on the walls helping children engage with the fact that many of their heroes experienced life at one point without parents or suffered the fate of being a foundling. The sheer amount of names of characters that were foundlings must have a profound effect on the child’s experience of the museum as often having a personal connection with these characters can help the children become more empathetic towards experiences and artifacts in the museum rather than just looking at pictures and photographs of children in the 18th century onwards. By directly aiming certain interactive elements such as the direct accounts of past foundlings via video and radio aids the child’s experience at the museum as they can hear first hand accounts of what it was like to live in the hospital. Thus these elements make the experience of the museum itself more profound and helps children understand what foundlings had to experience, giving food for thought to help the child try to experience the emotion of a foundling themselves. It puts children into the narrative and thus brings the history of the foundlings in Britain forward into the national narrative and thus our national memory.

Although we as adults are able to comprehend the plight of the foundling children it may appear to be harder for children to fully comprehend how children their age were given up by mothers as they could not imagine being given up by their own mothers, given new names and new identities when their identities were just forming. Children experience the museum in a different way unable to fully retain facts and figures so it has to be explained in a different, more interactive way. The museum provides a variety of ways in which children can experience the museum and experience the history of the abandoned children of London. However, the ways in which each child would experience the museum would undoubtedly be different as not each person experiences the same thing in the same way. There cannot be a completely universal experience. The museum itself ‘paints a vivid picture of family separation, the stigma of illegitimacy and the search for birth parents’[7], which creates emotive responses within the children visiting and the strong feeling of empathy causes us to insert the history of the foundlings of London back into our national memory.

[1] L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837,(London, 2006), 59.

[2] Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, (Berkeley, 1993), 3.

[3] John Tosh ‘Public History, Civic Engagement and the Historical Profession in Britain’, History, Vol 99, No. 355, (2014), 195.

[4] Laura Gowing, Podcast on the Foundling Museum no.2.

[5] The Foundling Museum Brochure, London.




Day of Dissent: Ian Hislop’s Exhibition at the British Museum

I recently visited London in order to graduate from King’s College London, saying goodbye to the student part of my life and saying hello to the hopefully short ‘unemployed historian’ chapter. As I was spending a week in the city I desperately want to get back to I decided to put on my tourist gear and head to the museums (a hobby I regrettably never took full advantage of whilst living in London). My first stop was to see Ian Hislop’s exhibition “I Object”: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent and I was not disappointed.

If anyone doesn’t know, Hislop is an entertaining character in the British media having been the editor of renowned satirical paper ‘Private Eye’ since 1986 and for his witty, cutting comments on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Naturally, since satire and political lampoonery have shaped his career, it seems very fitting that he chose to create an exhibition on dissent and resistance all over the world, hand choosing objects, artwork and clothing that have defied religions, governments and wars throughout history. The objects that show dissent in this exhibit hail from a wide range of countries across very different eras and regimes. The acts of dissent as well vary from possible mistakes such as a misprint ‘thou shalt commit adultery’ in a King James Bible, to outright political statements such as a coin defaced by the women’s suffrage movement stamped with the slogan “votes for women’. As well as choosing the objects himself, Hislop has plaques around the exhibit telling the audience the reason why he chose these specific objects and asking questions about how we might oppose the status quo in our everyday lives. He interacts with the public throughout giving the reader a chance to think deeper about the objects on display and how dissent is shown in national media today.

These photographs from the exhibit above are just a small number of objects on display at the exhibit. The plate ‘Say yes to vodka! Papa Mikhail says no to vodka!’ from Russia around the year 1991 reproduces a Soviet-era anti-alcohol poster from the 1950s. The plate satirises the temperance movement of the 1980s instigated by Gorbachev. This type of satire is perceived to have been made after the collapse of the Soviet Union as an act of blatant opposition such as this would have no doubt had dire or even lethal consequences.

The image of the Hindu goddess Kali shows a very popular act of political dissent of creating images where a figure ‘wears the enemy’ to show violence and victory. The image, estimated to be created around 1895, shows the goddess of destruction wearing a necklace of severed heads to signify the death of the ego. The heads being painted akin to European skin tone and fashion can be seen to signify the politicians of colonial powers as the Indian people start to form a fight for independence. This act of sedition, showing Kali to represent all of India defeating the British colonisers is a great image to represent the tensions in India at the time.

Trump. Oh god I know I know, everything in the media today is all about Trump since he won in 2016 so it would be irresponsible not to include an object of dissent from the Tump era. On January 21st 2017, women from all over the world gathered in cities to march against Donald Trump being elected to the highest office in the United States. One of the main reasons why women marched all over the world was for his derogatory comments and actions towards minorities, disabled people and women. The infamous “grab her by the pussy” comment sparked outrage from women across the globe. One act of defiance in the march was the wearing of pink ‘pussy’ hats which aimed to reclaim the word as a form of empowerment and show that women can and will fight these comments and injustices. This modern act of defiance sparked other movements such as the Me Too campaign which highlighted sexual assault across the globe and sought to hold those accountable for their crimes.

My favourite piece from the exhibition however, was one that directly poked fun at the British Museum itself. This piece of wall art was created by the infamous graffiti artist Banksy showing a seemingly primitive drawing of a man with a trolly going out to fetch a killed buffalo. This ‘cave painting’ fragment was hung in the British Museum unbeknownst to the museum staff for three days. It was even given a fake identification number and label mimicking the other labels at the museum. Part of the label reads that the painting was created by a Banksymus Maximus stating that the majority of his work has not survived due to “zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of drawing on walls”. The museum was alerted to this fake by Banksy’s website and it is a perfect representation of dissent at the expense of the museum.

The exhibit is a must see for anyone who enjoys satire and resistance to the status quo and depicts both funny and very serious acts of defiance to regimes around the world. It teaches us that we should always question our governments and not just willingly accept the status quo if it does harm or promote injustice. It is a love letter across the ages to those who sought to have their voices heard and defy those who ruled them no matter how covert or outrageous. It is a homage to satire and resistance telling the audience that there should always be debate and opposition to make the world a more learned place.

(All images were taken at the British Museum and all objects belong to the museum. The exhibit ‘I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent’ is in the British Museum until the end of January)