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Political Posters: Get The Message

Paul Berentzen thinks we should all take a look: it'd be good for democracy

Published on November 15th 2011.

Political Posters: Get The Message

A GREAT selection of some of the most influential political posters are on display in Manchester. 

It is a strange but impressive feeling to walk through the history of politics in this way, one that puts the visitor in the shoes of voters throughout the last hundred years. 

The People’s History Museum, on Left Bank, is showcasing a range of posters from across the last century, documenting the evolution of the British political poster. 

The first thing that visitors see upon entering is a huge print of the Conservatives’ famous ‘Labour isn’t working’ poster, depicting a winding dole queue. 

But Chris Burgess, exhibition curator and PhD student at the University of Nottingham, said that while it is the image most people expect to see, it isn’t necessarily the most influential poster in the collection.

Jacksons And Lounge Ten 012

He said: “We decided to put it right at the entrance, but I don’t know it’s as important as people say. But it’s the one they remember.” 

For him, the role of the poster in the history of political campaigning in this country is an interesting one. 

While a poster may not be likely to instantly change a voter’s mind, it helps to raise awareness and plant ideas in their minds. 

“I think they do a number of things,” he said. 

“They provide an awareness that an election is going on. With things like leaflets and, more recently, with party election broadcasts you can ignore it. With a poster you have to pay attention to it.” 

But the exhibition doesn’t seem to focus on the merits of individual posters, rather on how they have developed as whole in recent centuries. And this is where the beauty of it lies. 

Set out in roughly chronological order, the posters guide you through the evolution of political campaigning. 

Some stand out as capturing the mood at a certain moment in time, while others show how the British people have been struggling with the same problems since the turn of the last century. 

Although Confidential was lucky enough to get the guided tour before the grand opening, Mr Burgess’ helpful captions point out things that visitors might not have considered. 

For example, he is quick to explain: “I think the essential thing about the posters is the interaction between word and image. You have that going right back through the past two or three hundred years.” 

And that is one of the most striking things about the posters. While they clearly change over time in terms of style and appearance, certain important features run throughout. 


Mr Burgess points out along the way how carefully words are chosen to complement or contrast with the images and the range of effects that can have. 

He makes time to note the use of symbolism which, unsurprisingly, features heavily throughout the exhibition - perhaps none more so than the one, that uses babies drinking milk to portray the rich/poor divide.

Top hats and cufflinks to represent greed and corporate elitism or idyllic smiling families to depict domestic contentment might seem obvious, but the Sun was perhaps the most striking symbol and one that recurred throughout.

The most in your face example of it is the Conservative poster where the Sun is the focal point, but it creeps back again and again in varying forms over the years and most recently, and rather subtly, in a poster from last year’s election. 

And Mr Burgess said something that really interests him is how these symbols will evolve in the future.

Despite the fact that technology is changing the role of the traditional poster, he believes these recurring features will continue. 

“I’m not sure how long the posters on a billboard have got to go,” he said. “But some of these symbols will last and some of them won’t.

“The idea of greed will stay but it will be interesting to see how that changes over time. And the image of the Sun will carry on but others will change.” 

Other features he pointed to were the move towards the use of photography in posters, originating in the 1950s, and the increasing focus on party leaders. 

“One of the things people talk about is the Prime Minister becoming more and more presidential,” he said. “And you can see it happening here. 

“What does a political party look like? A leader has a physical presence and they use the leader to generate votes.” 

Another theme he focuses on in the exhibition is the depiction of women in posters, who are often shown as mothers or domestic consumers. 

Referring to this poster he said: “It is one of only two posters I have seen - out of probably over 600 - that recognised that women did work.” 

It is a strange but impressive feeling to walk through the history of politics in this way, one that puts the visitor in the shoes of voters throughout the last hundred years. 

The exhibition will run at the People’s History Museum from 12 November 2011 until 17 June 2012.




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Kevin PeelNovember 17th 2011.

Can't wait to have a look!

Isabella JacksonNovember 17th 2011.

Really? Can't wait for you yo comment on the Council staff free parking story - it's over on the page about resident's parking if you're interested.

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