Young People and Protest Exhibition at the National Justice Museum

On a recent trip south I wandered past the National Justice Museum in Nottingham and noticed that they had an exhibition on called ‘Young People and Protest’. I couldn’t resist going in to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised. It is a small exhibition, but it does an excellent job of representing the concerns and interests of young people in an engaging and interactive way.

The Crime Gallery in the National Justice Museum contains a large mural by artist Neequay Dreph portraying important moments in the history of resistance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The National Justice Museum contains a Victorian courtroom, a Georgian gaol, and cells that date back to the Saxon era. You have to pay to visit these, but the museum also has some free exhibition spaces. The largest one of these, The Crime Gallery covers a broad range of themes including Protest, Riot and Terrorism. If I’m honest, this gallery was much more even-handed and critical than I thought it would be, encouraging visitors to think about what crime is, and who gets to decide what is (il)legal. This gallery contains a jukebox playing protest songs and a mural by local artist Neequay Dreph depicting local, national, and international protest events.

The Young People and Protest Exhibition features an artwork by Tim Onga, which combines designs by three young artists (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Young People and Protest exhibition was co-produced with thousands of young people and is designed to continue to evolve and change as more people interact with it. It doesn’t contain many historic artifacts (exceptions include button badges donated or lent to the Museum, and a bludgeon used by protesters during the 1887 Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square). Instead, it features objects co-produced by young people and artists, including placards, a mural, and an ever-changing wall of images from social media. This has the impact of foregrounding the opinions of young people, which is quite uncommon for a museum exhibition.

These placards were co-designed by young people during a series of workshops and designer and educator Saria Digregorio (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Gallery Guide is also worth checking out; it contains further information about the themes of the exhibition and highlights specific examples of recent protests that have been driven and shaped by young people, such as Black Lives Matter and the School Strike for Climate. It also hints at the huge variation of contexts for protest around the world, detailing the harsh treatment of young protesters in Tunisia, Belarus, Cuba, and Thailand. It may be becoming increasingly difficult to protest in the UK, but there are many other countries where the risks of protesting are even greater. Young people continue to accept those risks every day.

There are opportunities for visitors to interact with and respond to themes and issues raised by the exhibition, including altering newspaper headlines and answering the question ‘who has the privilege to protest?’ Sometimes these kinds of features can feel like an afterthought in museum exhibitions; either they are located right at the end of the exhibition, or the materials to take part have run out. This is not the case here – the activities are located in central spaces, and it feels like encouraging visitors to reflect on their own feelings and perspectives is a central goal.

Responses from exhibition visitors to the question ‘Who has the privilege to protest?’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Young People and Protest exhibition demonstrates what can be achieved when museums adopt creative approaches and engage with the communities they are attempting to represent. It is vibrant, engaging, and centres the voices and priorities of young people. The exhibition is open until October 2022, and I highly recommend going to check it out if you’re in the East Midlands before then.

Playful Protest: Popular Culture and Humour in Hong Kong and London

As I’m sure many of you have, I’ve been following the events of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong very closely. The protests, known to some as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ because of protesters using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, have been going on for some weeks now. The protesters accuse the Chinese government of reneging on multiple promises to allow Hong Kong a free and fair democracy by placing restrictions on who is allowed to run for the position of Chief Executive, effectively Hong Kong’s leader, in 2017 (for more information about the Hong Kong demonstrations, see An end appeared to be in sight as talks between the government and the protesters were scheduled for this Friday (the 9th of October), but they were called off the day before they were due to take place. One of the things that struck me as I have watched events unfold is the many similarities between the protests in Hong Kong, and many recent demonstrations in London. One example is the playful, light-hearted approach some protesters take, evidenced in placards and banners made and carried by the demonstrators.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010.
This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

Placards, banners, and signs are an integral part of a demonstration or protest. Along with the shouting of chants and slogans, they convey the message of the demonstrators to observers. Many, such as the poster in the image above, are mass produced by large groups and organisations involved in the demonstration. But many others are home made, painted or drawn onto pieces of cardboard and old bedsheets. These allow individual protesters to express themselves, publicly declaring their own opinions and perspectives. For many the placard is a temporary object, the streets after a demonstration are often scattered with them, and they are sometimes used as fuel for impromptu fires. However in 2011 the Save our Placards project (see, run by Goldsmiths and the Museum of London sought to change that, collecting placards after the Anti-Austerity March for the Alternative on the 26th of March. They collected over 300 objects, 10 of which are now in the Museum’s collections. The project demonstrated the vast amounts of creativity and variety that can be involved in placards and has shown that they are worthy of attention by those studying protest.

One thing that placards make clear is the playful attitude of many protesters to issues they are trying to draw attention to. In both the recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and student demonstrations against austerity and raised tuition fees in London in 2010 and 2011, protesters have taken an irreverent approach through the use of humour and references to popular culture.

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author's own).
A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: Hannah Awcock).

During the Hong Kong demonstrations there was a large banner hung from a footbridge across a road which read ‘Do u hear the people sing’. The phrase is a line from one of the most famous songs from the musical Les Miserables, which culminates in the 1832 June Revolution in Paris. The second, taken in London, asks ‘What would Dumbledore do?’, probably a reference to the phrase ‘What would Jesus do?’ sometimes used as a way of making decisions. Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the fictitious school of magic in the Harry Potter book and film franchise. The people who made both of these signs are using their knowledge of popular culture to articulate their own opinions and demands, one a demand to be heard, the other a call to the British Authorities to consider their actions.

Pro-Democracy Protester holding a written slogan “I’m so angry , I made a sign” at midnight on 28th September, 2014 in Connaught Road Central (Source: Lamuel Chung).
A humourous topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author's own).
A humorous and topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Hannah Awcock).

The above two photos show placards which take a more humorous approach to protest. The second, taken in London, is particularly topical as it was part of a demonstration against the UK coalition government’s plans to raise the cap on tuition fees from just over £3000 to £9000 a year in 2010. Humour is a common way of dealing with upsetting or traumatic situations, and I think humour in protests is no exception, making the difficult and strenuous task that is activism easier to cope with.

I am often struck by the similarities between different protests around the world. You don’t have to look very hard to find multiple connections and links. A playful approach to protest is one of these similarities, and I’m sure it can be found around the world, not just in Hong Kong and London.