Politics

Museum sparks debate after listing Margaret Thatcher as a 'villain' alongside Hitler and Bin Laden

Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Margaret Thatcher have been named as ‘contemporary villains’ in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Margaret Thatcher have been named as ‘contemporary villains’ in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Credit: wiki commons

What do Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and Margaret Thatcher have in common?

It sounds like the start of a bad joke. But all three have been named as ‘contemporary villains’ in a controversial exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The exhibit does not, it is worth noting, suggest that the former British prime minister is equivalent to the genocidal dictator or the murdering terrorist – rather, it showcases the ways that unpopular public figures have been portrayed in Punch and Judy shows throughout history.

“Over the years, the evil character in this seaside puppet show has shifted from the devil to unpopular public figures including Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and Osama bin Laden, to offer contemporary villains,” the caption reads.

Nonetheless, the comparison ignited social media, infuriating Conservative MPs.

“Given the fact that MPs are now regularly receiving death threats, myself included, from extremists and others, this V&A exhibition is ill-thought and mendacious,“ said Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

“They must live in a bubble, away from the real world, to think that it is rational to propose that a politician of the stature of Margaret Thatcher would equate to any of those mass murderers and vile human beings.”

Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Baroness Thatcher and director of The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom, called for the institution to be “stripped of public funding.”

The V&A said it would review the text and update the wording “if necessary.” But other commentators have defended the curation choice.

Caroline Slocock, the director of think tank Civil Exchange, described calls for the removal of funding as a “knee-jerk reaction to headlines, fuelling culture wars against British institutions.”

“It [reminds] me of [Oliver] Dowden as culture secretary threatening to withdraw museum funding over statues,” she said, referring to Dowden’s 2020 threat to remove funding for museums that removed statues of contentious figures like slave traders.

“People calling [Thatcher] Punch is a fact, not V&A propaganda, and an example of the misogynistic hatred often inspired by powerful women. Remember effigies of Thatcher being burnt at her death, Trump supporters chanting ‘kill the bitch’ re: Clinton, Hester saying Abbott should be shot.”

Thatcher was a deeply controversial politician. A true believer in trickle-down economics, she privatised the country’s utilities, broke up industrial labour unions and introduced the right-to-buy policy that ultimately decimated the nation’s public housing stocks. During her tenure as education secretary, she was nicknamed “Milk Snatcher” after scrapping free school milk supplies. These policies deeply angered many on the left and in Britain’s working class – and she was indeed deemed a “villain” by many.

Tom Hamilton, a former Labour staffer and director at Public First, dismissed the uproar over her inclusion in the V&A exhibit as a “silly way of framing the issue.”

“The museum caption is about an interesting historical shift in the choice of villain in puppet shows from ‘mythical/religious figure’ to ‘real political figure’, not a claim that Hitler and Thatcher are the same,” he said.

“You can complain that it’s inappropriate for Thatcher and Hitler to fulfil the same dramatic function in a puppet show (and indeed Thatcher and the devil, and it’s weird that that’s not noticed) but the people to complain to are the puppeteers not the museum curators.”

“Obviously complaining to a puppeteer in the 1980s that they were using Margaret Thatcher to fulfil a function in a puppet show that a different puppeteer used Adolf Hitler for in an equivalent show in the 1940s would be deranged, but still.”

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