Animal Rights: From the Margins to the Mainstream

26 June 2023
By Dominic O'Key

All images courtesy of the author.

As I type these words there is a corner of the British Library that is devoted explicitly, if only temporarily, to radical declarations of animal liberation.


Animal Rights: From the Margins to the Mainstream is a small display of pro-animal artefacts: articles, petitions, letters, screen-prints, magazines and books. Illuminated inside four glass cases in the Treasures Gallery, these documents are all moments in the history and culture of animal rights from the Enlightenment to today.


There is an 1826 petition to extend Martin’s Act beyond the improper treatment of cattle. There are anti-vivisectionist leaflets, vegetarian lifestyle magazines and environmentalist newsletters. An original copy of Peter Singer’s 1973 ‘Animal Liberation’ essay from the New York Review of Books is positioned next to a poster by a Sussex-based activist group who proclaim “so you want to really help animals? There are lots of ways – unfortunately they’re all illegal! UGH!”

Taken individually, these documents are scattered fragments of resistance. They are lone voices campaigning and theorizing against the status quo of animal suffering. Yet clustered together as they are here they form a collective tradition, a diverse movement of animal advocates that spans four centuries.


This is entirely by design. The main accompanying text frames the exhibition like so: “For centuries, people in the UK have fought to provide a voice for animals to protect their welfare. Whether through legal reform, grassroots activism or societal trends, the push for animal rights has worked to improve the lives of animals in our homes, in farming and in the wild.”


Yet there are materials here that also complicate this narrative. A 1998 letter by British geneticist and communist Anne McLaren argues that animal testing should continue wherever there is no readily available alternative. Elsewhere, the display begins with a first edition of William Hogarth’s 1768 satire The Four Stages of Cruelty. Although Hogarth’s printed engravings admonish animal cruelty, they ultimately picture the abuse of other creatures as a marker of moral degeneration and a gateway to social violence.


These two texts are drawn from the British Library’s already extensive archive, which includes the Richard Ryder collection among others. However the more recent materials on display here are new acquisitions, carefully selected pieces from the Kim Stallwood Archive. Acquired in 2020, now fully searchable online, the Stallwood collection chronicles the international animal rights movement across the 1970s and 80s. It features hundreds of files, some of which are embargoed until 2045.

Sitting on the plush red cushions to the side of the installation, I began writing these reflections while watching visitors come and go. They gazed at the dark-green first edition of Henry S. Salt’s Animal Rights, published in 1874. Their attention was caught, just for a moment or two, by the striking screen-print of a broiler chicken that reads: “Perhaps one day things will change and we will rule the world”.


Speaking to a handful of people who lingered longer than others, I met vegetarians and pet-owners, people whose lives are at once profoundly and differently shaped by the presence and absence of animals. Some visitors took photos. Others breezed by, uninterested.


On display until 9th of July, the installation is framed by the Library as a free complement to their major summer exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound. This is a curious curatorial move, as it confirms but also undercuts the display’s story of animal rights as a once marginal and now mainstream concern. Situated decisively outside the main exhibition, and receiving only a small amount of promotion, Animal Rights remains evidently peripheral.


Perhaps this is for the better, though. For as campaigners know all too well, institutionalisation is a double-edged sword, bringing with it the risk of compromise, co-optation and dilution. The display navigates this tension by sitting within a mainstream but also on its fringes. From here it can avow an insurgent radicality, but only to a limited audience.


The British Library’s acquisition of the Kim Stallwood Archive and its curation of this display is, though, a milestone moment. It is indicative of a broader cultural milieu, in Britain if not elsewhere. Pro-animal ideas are increasingly pervasive and normalised, yet the material conditions in which animals live and die remain roughly the same, if not worse.


This is the contradiction of our time. It is not new, but it is intensifying. And how we make sense of this present will rest, to a considerable extent, on the resources of the past – like those on show in this thought-provoking display.

Animal Rights: From the Margins to the Mainstream runs until 9th July at the British Library Treasures Gallery, London.