The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge presents ‘Defaced!‘, the first major exhibition to explore a 250-year history of protest, using currency as a canvas and a vehicle for rebellion. Passed through many hands, cash is the ideal way to circulate a message while having a go or poking fun at those in power. Curated by Richard Kelleher, Defaced! takes a deep dive into a world of counterculture and protest.
Objects of rebellion made by the radicals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, like Thomas Spence and the Suffragettes are shown alongside works by contemporary artists and activists including Banksy, Aida Wilde, Hilary Powell, Lady Muck, kennardphillips, J.S.G Boggs, Stik and more.
People deface money to battle oppression or to express their support for often bitter and violent struggles. Coins and banknotes represent the state’s authority in widely available, portable and hand-held form, making them ripe for attack. By defacing money, even the least powerful in society can have a go at the head of state or circulate their urgent cries of protest to others. For artists and satirists, money’s iconic imagery and wealth of associations makes it a powerful medium to address issues of social, political and racial justice.
The exhibition seeks out the stories behind the damage, which reveal some of the personal and hidden struggles experienced during major world events – from the French and American Revolutions to the First World War and the Nazi concentration camp system to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Black Lives Matter movement.
A last section titled Money Now / Money Tomorrow mentions the development of money and its impact on our right to protest.
Money today is not just divided along lines of wealth but also in the forms of money to which people have access. With digital banking, credit cards and contactless payments, a reliance on coins and banknotes is now a marker of social deprivation rather than affluence.
Many people carry no cash at all – a decline hastened by the recent pandemic. There are also forms of money that remain invisible to most like the emergency cash issued in refugee camps.
In today’s world where the use of coins and notes are increasingly being replaced by digital payments, and against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis and current debates about personal freedoms, this exhibition is urgently relevant.
Losing the chance to register our protests on cash might seem an inconsequential loss, but what have we traded for the convenience and ‘cleanliness’ of digital money?
We are now increasingly prey to surveillance, data-collection and cyber crime, while the reasons that have prompted defacement over the last 250 years – oppression, injustice and the need for change – remain the same. Perhaps finding new ways to speak up is more urgent than ever?
Defaced! , Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Until Sunday 08th January 2023