Neil MacGregor talks of grand encyclopaedic museums , as though this option somehow over-rules all other possibilities. The reality of course is that this is purely a self appointed role for the British Museum. There are no mentions of the terms Encyclopaedic Museum or Universal Museum (its now tarnished pre-cursor) before 2000 that relate to the concept as the British Museum now describes it. Surely if it was such an important aspect of the museum world, articles in the press would have mentioned it before then?
Looking back at the arguments, the Universal Museum ties in partly to Neil MacGregor’s arrival as director of the institution, but also with the beginning of construction work on the New Acropolis Museum. Could it be that they realised that one of their arguments was soon going to be obsolete, so they had to rapidly invent a new one to replace it with?
Book review: A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
Published Date: 27 November 2010
By Susan Mansfield
A History of the World in 100 Objects
BY Neil MacGregor
Allen Lane, 732 pp, £30
IF POINTS were awarded for sheer, unbridled ambition, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, would surely come top of the class. It takes a certain bravado to dream up a 100-part radio series, telling the story of near two million years of world history, each episode pegged to an object which the listeners can’t even see.
Now the book of the series is published, a 700-page doorstop and a major achievement, particularly for a man who put it together while simultaneously running one of the world’s biggest museums. It is, on one level, a shameless plug for that museum, from whose collection all 100 objects come, though if MacGregor is blowing his own institution’s trumpet, he has some justification in doing so.
The book is also, more subtly, an argument in favour of large, encyclopaedic museums which tell the story of world civilisations. MacGregor’s museum faces challenges from various countries who want their artefacts back. On the Elgin Marbles, he writes: “The Greek government insists they should be in Athens, the British Museum Trustees believe that in London they’re an integral part of the story of world cultures.” The publicity for the book claims this is a “dramatically original” way of doing history. Certainly, the study of objects makes possible an international approach, less focused on certain pivotal events (the fall of Rome, the Renaissance, the First World War are barely mentioned here). Above all, it makes it possible to “hear” from those societies or parts of a society which left no written record.
Objects offer us a different way of connecting with the past. We can read about the oldest object here, a stone chopping tool fashioned a staggering two million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge, part of the East African Rift Valley in Tanzania, where the first humans originated. It is difficult to imagine the pre-homo sapiens person who used it, what he looked like, how he communicated, but here is a sharpened object, its rounded end fashioned to rest comfortably in the palm of a hand just like yours or mine.
This, writes MacGregor, was “the beginning of a relationship between humans and the things they create which is both a love affair and a dependency”. From then on, we made things, and the things were part of what made us human. In time, we were making things that were more complex than they needed to be in a functional sense.
And then there were objects with no clear practical function, objects with aesthetic or ceremonial value, signs of mankind reaching out to dimensions beyond subsistence.
MacGregor’s objects are perhaps most fascinating when they open a window on societies about which we understand little: a tag attached to the sandals of Egyptian King Den is a “miniature masterclass in the enduring politics of power”. The Mold Gold Cape, from Early Bronze Age Wales, clearly a leader’s garment, appears strangely small until one understands that the majority of people in that society didn’t live past 25.
The limit of a history based on objects is that it depends on what has survived. An earth goddess figure from the Huastecs, who were subjugated by the Aztecs, gives a snapshot into their spiritual world, for example, but mostly leaves us aware of how much we don’t know, and can’t know.
The short, lively chapters make this a pleasant book to dip in and out of, and MacGregor keeps the commentators coming: Sir David Attenborough on the Olduvai chopping stone, Antony Gormley on the bust of Rameses II, Andrew Marr on the political uses of Alexander the Great’s image on coinage, and so on.
Many objects tell us not only of the time in which they were made but of the journey they’ve been on since. We may baulk at the idea of an ancient object being defaced, but when the 18th-century Qianlong emperor of China obtained a Jade “Bi” (a rounded disc) dating from 1200BC, he not only wrote a poem imagining how the object might have been used, he had it inscribed on to the jade. A Roman engraved cup showing a sexual encounter between an older man and an adolescent boy was so risque that when it came on the market in the 1920s the British Museum could not buy it, and paid a much higher price when it finally did so in 1999.
The world that emerges here is of one that is evolving and connected. A jade axe turns up near Canterbury, having been hewn high in the Italian Alps more than 2,000 years BC; a drum made in West Africa is brought to Virginia on a slave ship; a rhinoceros is transported to Lisbon from India in 1515, causing widespread wonder across Europe.
As the book moves closer to the present, it becomes clear how much ground each short section has to cover, and the job of selection becomes harder. A Victorian tea set has to cover a wide sweep of 19th-century culture, a penny defaced with a suffragette slogan covers women’s rights and electoral reform.
Not everyone will agree with MacGregor’s choices: two of the major life-changing developments of the last 200 years – motorised transport and computers – don’t get a look in. His final object is a solar-powered lamp, looking toward a future less dependent on conventional power sources. But if this book isn’t perfect, that’s not to say it isn’t a triumph.