November 19, 2010

A history of the world in 100 objects

Posted at 2:01 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Neil MacGregor’s immense Radio 4 series on the History of the World in 100 Objects has now finished & the book is available. What is interesting about the series though is how easily people were able to create a mental picture of the artefacts in question through MacGregor’s descriptions. In many ways a series that one would have expected to be on television because of its heavily visual aspect, in fact worked equally well on radio.

This fact (that you not only didn’t need to be there – nor even see the artefacts) at the same time could arguably undermine the British Museum’s on many issues. The museum would rather casts of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece than return the real thing – yet at the same time, it is becoming clear that actually being there with the real version of the sculptures isn’t perhaps as necessary to their understanding as the museum wants it to be.

Daily Telegraph

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor: review
By John Adamson
Published: 6:00AM BST 24 Oct 2010

The series A History of the World in 100 Objects shouldn’t have worked on radio but did, triumphantly. John Adamson wonders how Neil MacGregor’s world history will fare on the page

By most rational calculations, the original idea behind this enterprise was entirely mad. Attempting to write a history of the world, in any guise, is usually clear evidence of megalomania. Organising it, not as broad chapters on periods or themes, but as a series of 100 short essays about physical objects would seem to make the undertaking impossible from the outset. Deciding to deliver those essays through the one medium guaranteed to render the subjects of these essays wholly invisible – radio – would seem to move from the impossible to the perverse.

Yet A History of the World in 100 Objects – the series of 15-minute talks for BBC Radio 4 by the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, now issued as an illustrated book – has been a triumph: hugely popular, and rightly lauded as one of the most effective and intellectually ambitious initiatives in the making of ‘public history’ for many decades.

The book is genuinely a ‘world history’, traversing the globe from remote Scottish Isles to the deserts of aboriginal Australia, and reducing ‘our times’ to their proper place as a mere moment in the millennia-long span of human history.

Of course, in negotiating the transition from the air waves to the printed page, various aspects of this History have been lost. One is the mellifluous and (to southern ears) seemingly classless burr of MacGregor’s Scottish accent: one part reassuringly professorial, one part the bedside manner of a genial country doctor. On the other hand, few will lament the absence of the woozy, New Age-y music that accompanied the series on the radio.

Otherwise, the transition works well. The truly inspired aspect of the radio programme was the way in which it turned the medium’s obvious deficiency – its inability to show the objects being described – into its prime asset. By appealing to each listener to construct the objects in their mind’s eye, MacGregor beguiled his audience into embarking on more sophisticated acts of imaginative engagement: mentally reconstructing the world that made the object; pondering the value-systems that gave it meaning; and considering how those meanings changed as the object moved in time and place.

This quality – the call to what MacGregor calls ‘poetic re-creation’ – remains the most brilliant facet of this book. Freed from the need to choose objects for their visual impact, MacGregor’s selection is driven instead by a desire to find objects that exemplify broader themes and suggest connections across time and geographical space. In his hands, even humdrum objects flash with ideas, not mere surface dazzle.

Each object is illustrated with a full-page colour photograph; and, true, there are a few that can’t help but impress: a 14th-century reliquary of jewels and solid gold created to preserve a single barb from Christ’s crown of thorns; or a nine-foot high basalt male torso from Easter Island, ‘who dominates whatever gallery he’s in’.

Yet these are the exceptions. Many of the objects – a common Edwardian penny, for example, defaced with the words ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ – are so small that, unless directed to them, one would scarcely give them a second glance. Once again, it is MacGregor’s words, not his pictures, which simultaneously captivate and liberate the imagination.

Part of this book’s genius is its delight in paradox: large themes are elucidated with the tiniest of objects. Take the might of ancient Egypt. MacGregor’s most effective chapter on the power of the pharaohs is about one of the museum’s smallest objects: an ivory label, no bigger than a credit card, which once attached to a pair of sandals, and identified their owner as Egypt’s king (Object 11).

Incised into this two-inch sliver of ivory is an image of one of the earliest of the pharaohs, King Den, about to smite an enemy who cowers at his feet. MacGregor uses it to prise open an intimate view of the pharaonic court, to survey the territorial vastness of King Den’s Egypt (from the Nile Delta to the Sudan), as well as pointing up the timelessness of the political propagandist’s tricks: an image of power ‘eerily reminiscent of a contemporary political cartoon’.

Again and again, MacGregor confronts us with the strangeness and remoteness of the past, while at the same time highlighting the affinities between human experience centuries or even millennia ago and our own. This is dangerous territory for any real historian, as anyone who has watched television historians venturing their clunking equivalences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ – how people in ‘olden times’ were ‘just like us today’ – knows only too well. MacGregor gets away with it, partly because his comparisons with the present never lose sight of the differentness of the past, and partly because these common affinities, whether in our deference before power or the pleasures of sex, are so finely delineated.

Clever and original as it is, the History of the World in 100 Objects is probably the smartest advertisement for a museum ever devised. And yet it is also much more. Without ever saying so, MacGregor has provided a persuasive affirmation of why we need great encyclopaedic museums, such as his own: as places where, uniquely, the interconnections between humanity’s experience, across continents and millennia, can be viewed, appreciated, and understood.

When I read this book, the final chapter was still missing, as that much-awaited 100th object had yet to be revealed. We now know that Object 100 is a solar-powered battery capable of powering lights and charging mobile phones in parts of the world that have never had electricity before. All very worthy.

But this choice was an opportunity missed. Modesty may have forbad it; but that vacant 100th plinth ought really to have been reserved for the object that is currently the British Museum’s most valuable: Neil MacGregor himself.

A History of the World in 100 Objects
By Neil MacGregor
ALLEN LANE, £30, 608pp

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  1. Selby Whittingham said,

    11.20.10 at 4:57 pm

    The World in 100 Objects obviously has its origin as propaganda for the universal museum and aginst restitution. However a series of talks or a book are quite different from a museum. No one goes round the BM in this way with the object of learning about the whole world. That said, radio talks are sometimes better than tv discussions of art. This was shown long ago by Sir David Piper, who collected some in a book called “Enjoying Paintings”. One advantage is that the talker is invisible. Another that the imagination is involved. Another that time can be taken on one object, whereas the camera is perpetually restless.

  2. john maroulis said,

    12.12.10 at 7:59 am

    The last sentence in John Adamson’s review of MacGregors 100 objects was unbelievably pathetic. To suggest he is the most valuable treasure the museum has is obscene. l really cannot say anything else , Adamson is surely in love with the director.

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