A History of the World in 100 Objects

December 16, 2016
Korean dish with Japanese
repairs, Ceramic, gold and lacque © Trustees of the
British Museum
Korean dish with Japanese repairs, Ceramic, gold and lacque © Trustees of the British Museum

Neil MacGregor, former director of both the National Gallery, London, and the British Museum, is rightly viewed as one of the great museum professionals of our times. Combining intelligence, sensitivity and personal modesty with bluff Scottish common sense, MacGregor should be a model for today’s museum directors, as they  struggle with declining attendances and governments that esteem cultural institutions only for purposes of political propaganda.

Even then they get it wrong. Can anybody explain the public benefits of moving the Powerhouse Museum 24 kilometres out of the metropolitan area at a cost of a billion dollars, and making it share a building? The only benefit I can see is for private developers who would turn the existing site into more apartments and shops.

This is why people around the world seem to be growing progressively more distrustful of liberal democracy. The system is perceived as a game played by politicians and business to the detriment of the rest.

In such a climate, cultural institutions cannot rely on the largesse of the public purse. They need to cosy up to private and corporate sponsors that can be fickle and demanding. They need sure-fire hit exhibitions that attract people who are more inclined to stay home staring at a screen.

Neil MacGregor’s brainchild, A History of the World in 100 Objects, has been one of the global success stories of recent years. Launched in 2010, the project included a one hundred 15-minute radio broadcasts, a successful book, and an exhibition that is still touring the planet to widespread acclaim.

The show has already been through Perth and may be seen at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until the end of January. With every piece drawn from the British Museum it’s another package show, but as the museum’s permanent collection includes more than 8 million items spread across the entire scope of human endeavour, there are no obvious limitations on the selection.

On the contrary, MacGregor and his curators were spoiled for choice. Each of the 100 items in this show could be replaced by thousands of equivalent pieces and the results would be no less fascinating. For the Australian tour a good percentage of objects from the original selection have been removed, including a Parthenon sculpture, the Rosetta Stone, a 2.4 metre-high statue from Easter Island, and an Aztec double-headed serpent covered in turquoise mosaic.

The reasons for the substitutions are straightforward. Some objects are too rare and precious to travel, some too large or fragile. A Hawaiian feathered helmet in the original selection has been replaced with a basketry helmet. Only the feathers are missing.

Hawaiian basketry helmet, Olonā fibre, 1700–1800 CE, Hawaii, USA © Trustees of the British Museum

Hawaiian basketry helmet, Olonā fibre, 1700–1800 CE, Hawaii, USA © Trustees of the
British Museum

Other substitutions seem to have been made with an eye to regional interest, or perhaps to simply freshen up the display. A 1903 penny inscribed with the suffragette rallying cry, “Votes for women”, has been removed. A large, colourful, contemporary war shield from Papua New Guinea has been added. There’s no argument over which object is visually more compelling, but the two narratives could hardly be more different: the battle for female suffrage in Edwardian England vs. latter-day rites of  masculine self-assertion in a nation still riven by tribalism.

It’s not a one-for-one substitution but the comparison reveals the infinitely malleable nature of the exhibition concept. Each item is representative of a particular time and place, each adds its own dimension to the story of humanity.

There have been similar projects in the past. One thinks of Kenneth Clark’s landmark TV series, Civilisation (1969), or the photography show put together by Edward Steichen, called The Great Family of Man (1955), which toured the world for eight years.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is our own era’s version of these grandiose exercises. It is more broadranging than Clark’s series, which concentrated almost exclusively on European culture. It doesn’t have the Cold War baggage of Steichen’s show, which preached a message of universal brotherhood in the shadow of a nuclear arms race.

Nevertheless, A History of the World’ allows us to feel good about human creativity and ingenuity. The 100 Objects idea is reminiscent of all those potboiler publications that list 100 paintings to see, 100 places to visit, 100 beers to sample, etc, etc, “before you die”. In Heaven, as the song goes, there is no beer.

The curators of the show are non-judgemental in their discussions of the objects. There are no outbursts of connoisseurship, comparing a piece favourably or disparagingly to other available examples. There is no comment on unsavoury practices such as the blood sacrifices of the Maya, although it looks like something very nasty might have taken place on item no. 54 – a limestone altar carved with the face of a god named “white fright”.

Maya altar. Limestone, about 763–822 CE, Copán, Honduras © Trustees of the British Museum

Maya altar, Limestone, about 763–822 CE, Copán, Honduras © Trustees of the British Museum

Likewise, we can be shown a small figure of Christ made from ivory by a craftsman in Goa, c. 1600-1700 CE (no. 75) without a comment on what the ivory trade has done to the world’s elephant numbers.

Item no. 81 consists of 50 bronze and brass rings open on one side, called manillas, which served as the currency of the slave trade. The catalogue doesn’t bother telling us that slavery was a bad thing. It does, however, allow us to understand the momentous changes that slavery brought about – firstly in patterns of population, then in the moral campaign that brought the trade to an end.

There may be a trace of scientific scepticism in the inclusion of objects such as no. 15, the so-called Flood Tablet from old Nineveh (600-700 BC), which contains a famous part of The Epic of Gilgamesh that anticipates the tale of Noah’s Ark. Its translation in 1872 did much to undermine the Divine authority of the Bible.

Flood tablet, Clay, 700–600 BCE, Kouyunjik (Nineveh), Iraq © Trustees of the British Museum

Flood tablet, Clay, 700–600 BCE, Kouyunjik (Nineveh), Iraq © Trustees of the British Museum

With item no.36, a Roman statue of Mithras (100-200 CE), it’s quietly suggested that the cult was persecuted by Christians because it was too similar to their own doctrines. One thinks of all those left-wing groups that seem to despise each other more than they do their opponents on the right.

Another momentous upheaval in Christianity is flagged by item no. 78, a woodcut print from Leipzig (1617 CE) celebrating the centenary of Martin Luther’s declaration of his 95 theses, which launched the Reformation. Pope Leo X gets some rough treatment in a picture that is really a political cartoon.

Reformation centenary broadsheet, Woodcut print on paper, 1617 CE, Leipzig, Germany © Trustees of the British Museum

Reformation centenary
broadsheet, Woodcut print on paper, 1617
CE, Leipzig, Germany © Trustees of the
British Museum

David Hockney is the only well-known living artist to be included in this selection, with item no. 94, an etching called In the Dull Village (1966). Based on a poem by C.P.Cavafy, it shows two men lying peacefully in bed. The print was made the year before homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain, and stands for a whole raft of civil rights issues that came to prominence in the sixties.

The exhibition is wonderfully even-handed in balancing objects of beauty and value with utilitarian items such as a credit card, a football jersey and a solar-powered lamp. Yet even the most ordinary item has a story. The credit card (no. 98) comes from Dubai, and is “Shariah-compliant”, meaning that no interest can be charged. Some viewers might think they’ve finally found a good reason for converting to Islam.

This History of the World’ begins with a lump of rock made into a chopping tool by an anonymous inhabitant of Tanzania, between 1.8 and 2 million years ago. The second item is a stone axe, 1.2 – 1.4 million years old, found in the same region. In 600,000 years out ancestors in Tanzania advanced from a round rock to a slightly elongated rock.

Item no. 3, only 13 -14,000 years old, is a drawing of a bison on a piece of stone found in Montastruc, France. Homo sapiens have made their way out of Africa and art has begun! It will be thousands of years before the civilisations of the Indus Valley arise, and another couple of thousand until the Early Dynastic Period of the Egyptians. As the centuries tick by, the rate of progress accelerates until we reach the hectic, globalised world of today. Looking back on these fragments of the past one can’t help wondering what trash and treasure this age will leave in its wake.

Ice Age drawing of a bison, Limestone, about 13,000– 14,000 years old, Montastruc, France © Trustees of the British Museum

Ice Age drawing of a bison, Limestone, about 13,000–
14,000 years old, Montastruc,
France © Trustees of the British Museum

A History of the World in 100 Objects
National Museum of Australia, Canberra,
until 29 January 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 17th December, 2016