Medals of Dishonour

25 June – 27 September 2009  
Room 90  
Admission free

The first ever exhibition to examine an intriguing but relatively unappreciated aspect of medal work will open at the British Museum this summer. Medals are best known for celebrating important figures or heroic deeds. Alongside the long-standing and well-known association of medals with glory and achievement lies another darker tradition of the medal as an indicator of dishonour. This exhibition will feature works from the past 400 years that denounce their subjects and expose the long and rich tradition of this largely unexplored type of medal. The historic medals are hugely revealing about the political and cultural opinions that were prevalent in the times in which they were made, as are the modern works which are the creations of current cutting-edge and world-renowned artists such as Grayson Perry, Jake and Dinos Chapman and William Kentridge.

The first part of the exhibition focuses on the Museum’s historical collection of satirical and political medals from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Subjects range from the sombre and the bizarre to the scatological and the humorous. The medals will be placed in context through the use of contemporary prints and drawings from the British Museum’s unparalleled collection. Loaned medals by Marcel Duchamp and David Smith, the sculptor whose celebrated Medals for Dishonor of the 1930s lend their name to this exhibition, will be shown in this section. One example is a medal depicting the Humiliation of Louis XIV, 1689, by a Dutch artist, attacking France and its king through a mixture of allegory and ridicule. It features a humiliating image of Louis XIV ejecting the contents of his stomach and bowels. The medal entitled Financial Speculation was created in response to the financial scandals that occurred in Europe in the 1720s and has strong parallels with the situation today. Another highlight is a German anti-war medal from 1915 which shows a figure of Death happily smoking while seated on a cannon. A city is in flames in the background. This grimly sardonic medal expresses horror at the brutality of war without attaching blame to a specific side.

The second part of the exhibition features medals recently commissioned especially for this exhibition from some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. Steve Bell, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Ellen Gallagher, Richard Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, Yun-Fei Ji, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, William Kentridge, Michael Landy, Langlands and Bell, Cornelia Parker, Grayson Perry and Felicity Powell all have their work featured. The subjects they depict are wide-ranging, dealing with issues from the war in Iraq and consumerism to ASBOs and the credit crunch. Grayson Perry’s For Faith in Shopping shows a Virgin Mary-like figure dressed in designer labels and carrying a shopping bag, highlighting the UK’s almost religious obsession with high-street spending. William Kentridge’s Greed Envy Rage, 2008, depicts a megaphone striding through a denuded landscape. Kentridge’s work is steeped in and responds to the political and historical contingencies of his upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa.  These new medals have been commissioned by the British Art Medal Trust, a registered charity dedicated to the making and study of medals. The Trust has presented an example of each of the newly commissioned medals to the British Museum for its permanent collection.


For further information on the exhibition, or images please contact:
Esme Wilson on +44 (0) 20 7323 8394  or ewilson@britishmuseum.org 

Notes to Editors:

  • Medals of Dishonour by Philip Attwood and Felicity Powell is published by British Museum Press, priced at £16.99.
  • The exhibition Medals of Dishonour is supported by Chora.