Museum of International Propaganda
San Rafael, California
The Museum of International Propaganda shows us how the despots and repressive regimes of the 20th century used visual communication to manipulate the populace and serve their (mostly evil) ends. These days we collectively and loosely lavish the term "propaganda" on every annoying ad banner, slick media pundit, and political/religious/Hollywood message we encounter. That may also be propaganda, but the museum takes a refreshingly hard line approach on the topic. There's only so much space in its storefront galleries, and as fans of 20th century visual propaganda we appreciate its focus.
The Museum of International Propaganda is built entirely around the collection of its curators, Tom and Lilka Areton, and was amassed over 35 years of travel and a shared interest in political art. Tom and Lilka have been married for 45 years, and operate a non-profit student exchange program. Tom grew up behind the Iron Curtain -- one of the museum's exhibits is a large framed socialist realism painting that hung in the school he attended as a boy in Czechoslovakia. Titled "On the Porch," it depicts a Soviet Red Army colonel sitting in front of a farmhouse just liberated from the Germans. The pair have traveled extensively, finding examples of every sordid variation of state-sponsored propaganda.
Tom and Lilka enthusiastically welcomed each visitor at their grand opening on May 7, 2016. Inspirational posters and printed iconography hang on every wall. Lenin stared from his portrait, while Hitler greeted a flower girl in a snapshot under the air conditioning unit. We didn't notice until later that Tom was wearing a stylish Soviet hammer and sickle necktie.
The museum is well labeled, and divides displays into seven main areas. "Idealization of the Leader of the State," "Glorification of the Nation," and "Overstated Promotion of the Common People" include posters of romantic and dashing dictators, praise of industry, and glorious workers as heroes of the nation. Stalin shows the proper way to bounce a baby.
If we were planning our own power-mad regime, the museum provides an excellent overview ("Hold on -- we need to do more Fear and Intimidation before we push Veneration of the Military.")
While they display a few examples of American government propaganda and more recent events, the majority of pieces come from the major repressive states of the last century: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Communist China. The curators have crafted detailed explanations for each item.
One ceramic sculpture, "Mao Tse-Tung Surrounded by Four Adoring Red Guards," is a 1972 Cultural Revolution treasure. The label notes: "Just like the statues of the most venerated Saints, Mao is not connecting with his admirers but looks over their heads, other-worldly, into the Communist future (...) where everything will be 'for free.'"
And lest we think life under a dictatorship was all flowers and factory parties, the demonizing of enemies shows how hate was cultivated on a mass scale. The propagandists always found a group, race or country to blame, and a cartoonist or illustrator was on hand to sketch in the rat teeth and devil horns.
It's inevitable that seeing an assemblage like this will trigger discussion among your comrades and others. Over time the museum will offer speaker forums that will delve into other types of propaganda. They also intend to open a Free Speech Cafe.