“A History of the World in 100 Objects” by Neil MacGregor

Could you teach history through 100 objects? What objects would you choose and what stories could they tell us? A teaser article in the December 2011 issue of “Reader’s Digest” really hooked me!

“A History of the World in 100 Objects: From the Handaxe to the Credit Card” (2011) was written by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum. It’s a record of a BBC Radio 4 broadcast, which originally relied on the narrator’s vivid details and the listeners’ imaginations to envision each object – just as the artist Albrecht Dürer relied on descriptions and his imagination to create “Rhinoceros” (object #75), a woodcut print in 1515.

The book tells a history of the world “by deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time” (page xv), viewed through “objects that tell many stories rather than bear witness to one single event” (page xvi). The objects, all found at the British Museum, span human history, covering the world, aspects of human existence, art, science, and whole societies.

MacGregor acknowledges that few organic objects have survived; delights in the changes made to objects to change their meaning; and marvels at the new understanding made possible by science. He hopes to give us “a truer understanding of the world” (page xxv), sharing with us a common humanity, and posing the question, where do things from the past belong now?

The book is arranged chronologically, from 2 million BC to 2010, into 20 chapters, with color photos of each object. There are maps at the back of the book showing each object’s location, as well as reference notes.

Here are four objects that surprised and impressed me:

* I was impressed by the Jomon Pot (object #10), a clay vessel made around 5000 BC in Japan. It has coils of clay with fibres pressed into the outside, and gold leaf lining the inside. It is connected with new cuisines and a more varied diet, and was given new life centuries later as a mizusashi (water jar). The pot is particularly relevant for me because I am taking a ceramics class.

* The Chinese Han Lacquer Cup (object #34) from AD 4 is a small serving bowl that shows us the link between art and government. The bowl lists six craftsmen and seven supervisors involved in its making, a testament to specialization, mass production, industry, and bureaucracy.

* I was gratified to find a Hawaiian Feather Helmet (object #87) presented to Captain James Cook in 1778 among the objects, with vivid red, yellow, and black feathers. It is an emblem of fatal misunderstandings between Europeans and peoples of the world. The feathers are a symbol of divinity; the feather-work conveys sacred power and supernatural protection. The helmet has special meaning for modern Hawaiians: it is a symbol of Hawaiian chiefs, a lost kingdom, and a hope for sovereignty.

* One of the most famous art objects chosen for the book is Hokusai’s The Great Wave (object #93), an 1830s Japanese woodblock print. Beautiful and vivid, the blue wave is potentially deadly for the men cowering in the three fishing boats; Mount Fuji is unreachable. It is an image of instability and uncertainty, a warning about impending changes to Japan and the power of foreign influences. Before this, I saw only the beauty of the wave, not the threat to life, freedom, and even identity.

“A History of the World in 100 Objects” is a little overwhelming; it’s a massive book with over 600 pages, but it offers fascinating details and insightful observations. I learned about history and also gained a better appreciation for these objects, most of which I would pass by in a museum with very little thought.

If the book intimidates you, visit the BBC website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/ to listen to the broadcasts, see the objects, and explore the timeline. Beyond world history, the book poses an interesting question: What objects would you chose to tell your life’s story?

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