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Review | A History of the World in 100 Objects By Neil MacGregor

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on January 13, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

ISBN-13: 9780670022700
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 10/27/2011
Pages: 736

BBC Radio producers posed a challenge to the British Museum in London two years ago.

Museum director Neil MacGregor was asked to select 100 objects from about 2 million years in the past to pastiche together a history of humanity to the present day.

The British Museum has been gathering, classifying and speculating about relics and antiquities in its collection for more than 250 years. Expertise from archaeology, anthropology and other sciences support the museum’s prime directive—universality.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor is the record of the BBC Radio series broadcast in 2010. The book’s beautiful photographs of sculpture, weapons, pottery, coins, tools, musical instruments and drawings represent many aspects of human experience and not simply the beauty and refinement of those antiquities.

Can the collection speak about humanity across space and time?

MacGregor and the museum scored admirably high for selections that were inclusive of all types of societies, not just the literate and prosperous. He insists that objects should help us tell the whole story and should never privilege one source over another. Things give voice to those who never write history.

MacGregor provides notable commentary about the objects, their utility and the history we recover examining them.

A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with the mummy of Hornedjitef and a stone chopping tool… objects that reveal the beginnings of our humanity. The book concludes with the credit card and a solar-powered lamp/charger… objects that convey human innovation and our concerns about the future.

MacGregor asks erudite questions about the people who made the objects. What do we know about how they lived, how they saw themselves and their world?

A silk princess myth painted on tablets 2,600 years ago shows how ideas and technology spread along with spices throughout the Silk Road. A chariot model found on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan and made 2,300 years ago reveal the vast bureaucracy needed to maintain the Persian Empire. A high-quality lacquer cup created 2,000 years ago typifies the role of gifts in binding the loyalty of imperial governors to the Han emperor.

Writing is a later achievement in human history and even literate societies recorded what they cared about, what they feared, what they rejected in the things they created.

According to MacGregor, a walrus ivory chess set found in Scotland and a Hebrew astrolabe from Spain were objects used to show off taste and intellect.

In one poignant chapter, MacGregor examines a defaced penny from Edwardian England stamped with the words “Votes for Women”; the chronometer from the HMS Beagle; a Victorian stoneware tea set; and Hokusai’s woodblock print, The Great Wave.

How do these four objects connect us to our common humanity?

Scholars can tell us plenty about some of the objects, but the British Museum’s collection provides a history that is not even close to complete. What about societies whose antiquities have been lost or destroyed?

“Can we ever really understand others?” Neil MacGregor conjectures in the introduction and raises doubts about an object’s meaning by examining a Hawaiian feather helmet given to Captain James Cook at initial contact with Pacific islanders in 1779.

Cook had apparently recognized the gift as a sign of honor from one leader to another, but a few weeks later, he was killed by the same people who had gifted the feather helmet.

The book gives proper respects to museum contributors, including Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. An administrator on the island of Java, Raffles hoped to persuade Europeans of the greatness of this Indonesian civilization through his collection of antiquities. MacGregor explores several objects from the Raffles collection, including a shadow puppet and a Buddha head.

The book manages not to gloss over the concerns of countries that are home to some of the British Museum’s antiquities, a source of national pride and identity. Should these objects be returned? Or do collections like the British Museum promote scientific research and allow millions of visitors access to these treasures?

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor is a highly worthwhile read and a beautifully illustrated, authoritative history based on the world’s most compelling relics and antiquities.

Category: Nonfiction, History

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