Several years ago, when I was still planning out my first trip to Europe, I already had a list of places I wanted to visit. I was not sure when I would be going back after that trip, so I made sure to identify the places that I absolutely had to go and see in case I didn’t make it back to Europe at all. And while notable ruins and churches formed a good portion of that list, a significant number of items were dedicated to museums.
I love going to museums, especially the ones that house artifacts. I love looking at the objects on display, whatever they may be, and spending time in contemplation of said objects. I attribute this to the fact that my mother, in an attempt to ensure that her children were well-rounded readers, sought out books on history, and many of the books she gave me were from Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness series: informative non-fiction books filled with beautiful photographs and interesting chunks of information regarding the culture and history of those objects. At more or less the same time my fascination with myth and mythology began, and so I was able to see the links between mythology, culture, and history, as embodied in objects. Naturally at the time I did not have the vocabulary or the training to recognize what precisely this course of reading was teaching me to do, but by the time I went to Europe I knew precisely what was happening when I looked at, say, a Greek frieze: connecting the subject matter (Greek mythology) with the historical period (Athens’ Golden Age) and the culture and political, social, and economic conditions of the time.
It is because of this fascination with objects, and what they can tell a person about the time and circumstances in which they were made (and beyond, in some cases), that I immediately acquired A History of the World in 100 Objects as soon as I was able to find a copy. Using a selection of one hundred objects from the British Museum’s collections, Neil MacGregor, along with a host of other experts from diverse fields as anthropology, literature, visual arts, politics, and finance, analyzes each object in light of its connections to the history and culture of the civilization that produced it, both in the time that the object was first made, and its significance in later periods, up to the present day.
The creation of this book is obviously no small thing, and MacGregor is very much aware of this, as he makes clear in the Introduction. He speaks of the advantages and disadvantages of using objects as lenses into history, citing how, in many cases, objects are the only way through which one may attempt any understanding of certain civilizations, particularly those without any written records, or whose written records have yet to be fully understood (as is the case with the Indus Valley civilizations). MacGregor admits that such a method is far from perfect, but it is often a method that can yield rich insight if done properly.
This sense of doing things properly is also something that MacGregor has considered. Many of the contributors in the book are not just experts from the museum, but are artists as well, and – more importantly – people for whom the object or objects in question have a particular significance due to their cultural and/or racial heritage. For instance, in his discussion of the beautiful Benin Bronzes, MacGregor has Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka speak on something that he, rightfully, should be able to speak about, for whom the story of the Benin Bronzes has a certain significance that a purely Western expert could not begin to grasp. In the same article MacGregor has commentary from Sokari Douglas Camp, who, as both a sculptor and a Nigerian, offers a unique perspective on the artifact: the perspective of an artist appreciating and apprehending the Benin Bronzes as sculpture; and that of a woman of Nigerian heritage who sees the history of her heritage in the Bronzes.
This is a pattern that MacGregor repeats throughout the book, and is one of the things I greatly appreciate about what he and his colleagues and contributors have tried to do. To be sure, the quality of the research and photography are exquisite, but I find this attempt to let the people from whose cultures the objects come from have a say on how they are interpreted quite noteworthy. While I will not deny that there is a distinct bias towards the UK in most of the objects and their analyses, letting the “people of the objects,” as it were, talk about the object/s in question and present what their significance to them and their culture and history is truly a step in the right direction when it comes to discussing and interpreting any historical artifact. After all, who better to comprehend the significance of a Nigerian artifact than a Nigerian, or a Japanese artifact than a Japanese person? Even better, getting artists to comment on the objects allows the inclusion of perspectives that cannot be had from someone who is not a potter, or a sculptor, or a painter.
Something else that is rather notable about the book is that it feels like a personal, guided tour through the British Museum’s collections. To be sure, the British Museum is too big to see in a day, and there are also quite a few items that are not on display, but this book is rather like a selection of the best and most meaningful items the British Museum has. MacGregor’s writing, with its inclusion of commentary from other experts and contributors, is very readable, and very informative. Some reviews have remarked on how the tone is rather bland, but I do not think that of MacGregor’s writing – though of course this is likely bias on my part. I rather think of this book, with its lavish photographs and analyses and commentary, as a bit like a private tour of the British Museum, with a good guide to help explain the artifacts, and thus helping one approach a better understanding of the object in question.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is, in book format, a condensed explanation of why I love museums so much, even as it might be viewed as a condensed museum in and of itself. It shows how one may begin to understand another culture, extinct or otherwise, through the objects it has left behind, and how those objects may still be viewed today, and into the future. But what those objects signify is always dependent on the perspective of the one reading the object, and through his selection of contributors and collaborators, MacGregor achieves an interesting balance that allows the reading of one particular object from multiple perspectives, especially when the object can tell the darker stories of war and imperialism. It is these multiplicity of perspectives, this multiplicity of readings, that is the most invaluable – and insightful – aspect of this book. There are, after all, many ways to read an object, and the only way to truly understand it is to know, and be open to, the many lenses through which it might be viewed.
As long as museums – and people – keep this in mind, then maybe artifacts can lead to a better understanding of the world, which may, perhaps, then lead to solutions to the myriad problems plaguing the world today.