In 2017, during the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany made a false statement during a press conference. The following day, on television, her lie was rebranded by Trump’s Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway as an ‘alternative fact.’ After this incident, George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 saw a new surge in popularity; so much so that the book was completely sold out on Amazon in the United States for several days.

These days, in the era of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, Big Tech spying, ubiquitous social media, and questionable political decisions all around the world, 1984 is still as relevant as ever. Its central themes of totalitarianism, massive surveillance, and State control of the population and media speak to the reality of the digital age.

This is precisely the inspiration behind the imaginary exhibition titled ‘1984: An Influential Book, 1949 – 2020.’

Orwell typing © Vernon Richards, 1946

Translated into 65 different languages and with over 30 million copies sold worldwide, 1984 has infiltrated popular culture to the point that people who haven’t even read the book still know the story. Phrases like “Big Brother is watching you” or “the thought police” can be quoted by virtually everyone.

The exhibition would have an immersive aspect. The walls throughout would be concrete-grey, covered with graffiti-like writing evoking the slogans of The Party: ‘War is peace’, ‘Freedom is slavery’, and ‘Ignorance is strength.’ There would also be cameras in the rooms, connected to small screens where people could see themselves as if they were being actively surveilled. The visual inspiration for the exhibition would come from the film adaptation released in 1984, as well as from the stage design for Greenday’s musical American Idiot, created in 2010.

The first room would be called the Ministry of Sound. It would contain book covers from around the world, as well as from different years. Given the large number of examples, the collection would be organized according to what is represented on the cover, such as eyes, cameras, a single dominating character representing Big Brother, multiple rebel characters, etc.

(Inspiration from https://bookriot.com/1984-in-covers/)

(Inspiration from https://bookriot.com/1984-in-covers/)

The second room would be titled the Ministry of Fiction. It would showcase the real-life inspiration behind the book, complete with posters, articles, and even videos exhibited alongside corresponding book excerpts.

For example, the phrase ‘2+2=5 ‘ was an actual Soviet Union slogan used to promote their Five Year plan. (The above poster is from 1931.) In the United Kingdom as well there were posters created during both World Wars to positively portray death in battle, as well as the erasure of individual identity through the act of becoming a soldier. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of Truth’ was based on the real-life Ministry of Information that existed during WWII and served to promote British propaganda. It was located in the Senate House in London, which is currently a building of the University of London.

The room dubbed Ministry of Fiction would also contain links to today’s world. For example, it could include images of Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, or the now infamous ‘alternative facts’ live broadcast segment.

The following room would be the Ministry of Paper, showcasing audiovisual references to the book in popular culture. It would include the Apple Macintosh commercial that aired during the 1984 Superbowl and excerpts from two film adaptations, one released in 1956 and the other in 1984. It could even include images from the 1984-inspired reality television franchise Big Brother (1999- ).

This same room would also contain musical references from artists such as Muse, Eurythmics, The Jam, David Bowie, Rage Against the Machine, Coldplay, Stevie Wonder, and Radiohead.

Finally, the last room would be called the Ministry of Uniqueness. It would be a gateway to discover other dystopian works that hold relevance for today’s world. It would include novels such as Brave New World (1932), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

There could also be films inspired by 1984, such as THX 1138 (1971) or Gattaca (1997). It is particularly interesting that in every dystopian work, there is an emphasis on the control of words and reading in general. We have ‘newspeak’ in 1984 (1949) burned books in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), or women prevented from reading anything in The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The latter leads to a terrifying visual in the series by the same name (2017- ) that was adapted from the original book. There isn’t a single letter left in the grocery store, and everything has been replaced by symbols.

For more information on elements mentioned above, here are a few links to useful articles.

  • https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/19/legacy-george-orwell-nineteen-eighty-four
  • https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/10/1984-george-orwell
  • https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/19/david-bowie-nineteen-eighty-four-george-orwell-diamond-dogs-dorian-lynskey
  • https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/mar/11/death-truth-propaganda-alternative-facts-gripped-world
  • https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2016/aug/10/how-wartime-britons-were-easily-persuaded-by-the-propagandists
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ministry_of_Information_(United_Kingdom)

Elodie Katan
Master 2 MC2L, Université Paris 8
Département d’Études des Pays Anglophones