British Government Scolds Public: “Big Ben is not a billboard”

An image of the Mary Wollstonecraft Project, projected onto the Houses of Parliament (photo by Neil Wissink via Wikipedia)
An image of Mary Wollstonecraft projected onto the Houses of Parliament in 2011 to raise funds for a memorial sculpture in her honor (photo by Neil Wissink/Wikipedia)

The Houses of Parliament are not your advertising billboard, British government officials are reminding anyone eyeing the UNESCO World Heritage Site as a surface for light projections. Last week, House of Commons Director of External Communications Lee Bridges published a statement — titled “Big Ben is not a billboard” — urging the public to refrain from using the building as a “backdrop for guerrilla marketing projections,” writing that unauthorized messages compromise its “symbolic status” as a historic, listed building and as a symbol of the country.

“Unauthorized projections break planning permission regulations,” Bridges wrote. “They also dilute the impact of a marketing technique that parliament reserves for moments of national significance.

Album art for 'Amused to Death' projected on Houses of Parliament (image via @sarahmcgiven/Instagram)
Album art for ‘Amused to Death’ projected on Houses of Parliament (image via @sarahmcgiven/Instagram) (click to enlarge)

“We are not being killjoys or jobsworths,” she continued. “The Houses of Parliament, famed for their stunning Gothic architecture, are part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site and need to be enjoyed as such. These buildings are not free billboards – proposals to project commercial campaigns that are not in the national interest will not be granted permission.”

The statement follows the staging of a number of unsanctioned projections in the past year or so, some of which Bridges cites, not all of which are commercially driven. Most recently, timed with celebration of Chinese New Year — the Year of the Monkey — a UK tea-brand projected its primate mascot on the Elizabeth Tower (or Big Ben, as it’s known colloquially), just below the clock face. A more politically motivated campaign occurred last November, when protestors denouncing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to London claimed to have illuminated a wall overlooking the Thames with a swastika that shone next to a portrait of the state leader, accompanied by the words, “MODI NOT WELCOME.” That surface had been previously occupied by a projection of the cover art for Roger Waters’s Amused to Death, on the eve of the Pink Floyd co-founder’s album reissue last July. Easily the most tasteless, however, was an advertisement for “Charlotte’s 3-Minute Belly Blitz DVD,” which plastered before-and-after images of a British reality TV personality on the government building.

MP Sir Paul Beresford echoed Bridge’s words, telling the London Evening Standard, “Everybody knows Big Ben, and we don’t want it besmirched with graffiti, even if it’s light-placed graffiti. Please respect the building, its importance, and the fact that it’s internationally loved.”

An advertisement for a fitness DVD, projected last January
An advertisement for a fitness DVD, projected last January

The statement is a reminder of government’s role in limiting urban light projections at a time when they’re only becoming more popular to help further a cause (whether commercial or political). Technically, those interested in beaming visuals onto the Houses of Parliament require approval from both the planning department of Westminster City Council as well as the speaker of the House of Commons. Previously endorsed projections include one of falling poppies on the Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI and a light show during the 2012 Olympics, commissioned by the Mayor of London.

Such laws are not rare: New York City, for instance, also has strict regulations regarding building projections. A group of scientists worked for three years to receive the city’s consent to illuminate the Empire State Building with images of endangered species, as the New York Times reported. But sometimes those regulations can clash with the right to free speech, as exemplified by the actions and arrest of members of the Illuminator. Restricting commercial agencies from lighting up a public building, especially a culturally symbolic one, is understandable, but other projections without such self-serving agendas may have powerful messages and should not be threatened with strict legal consequences — even if they don’t fall within government-defined “national interest.”

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