Duty and Dissent: the Library’s new exhibition

We are excited to be unveiling a new exhibition themed around the many British voices of resistance to the First World War, officially opening on Monday 12 January, but already slowly emerging under the care of the Library’s conservators. Duty and Dissent capitalises on the Library’s very rich holdings of books, pamphlets, posters and ephemera which resisted, criticised or openly attacked the British national war effort. While created from a range of motives, such as absolutist pacifism, objection to conscription, fears over the betrayal of the solidarity of the international proletariat, and religious duty, many of these items share one important thing, their suppression under the Defence of the Realm Act.Cartoon from Satire, Dec. 1917 (MS1152/1/1/2)

The provisions and instruments of the Act, known mockingly as DORA, were constantly adjusted throughout the war in response to new challenges, but from its first passage through Parliament it provided for the extensive control of all publishing relating to the war. The cartoon to the right, published in Satire, a blacklisted magazine whose premises were raided by the police, demonstrates fairly eloquently how those on the British left saw the Act as blunt instrument of oppression. Exactly how banned items such as this issue of Satire, now extremely rare due to their wholesale destruction by authorities, came to be preserved in Senate House Library is unclear, but it allows us a fascinating and uncommon insight into public discourse during the conflict.

The material in question is displayed alongside official recruiting posters and other propaganda, emphasising the gulf between attitudes. However, this presentation also allows us to see the striking way in which intractably opposed positions actually made strident appeals to very similar fundamental principles and ethics in order to support their arguments. The principles most pressingly at stake can be expressed as duties, and the exhibition will be structured around four:

  • Duty to God
  • Duty to King and Country
  • Duty to Humanity
  • Duty to Conscience

In every case, the appeals made are highly emotive and still retain the power to stir and to shock the viewer. Whatever else visitors may feel, it is difficult to walk away from the exhibition entirely confident of any of the moral certainties expressed on either side.

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