A bad museum is little more than a storage closet for old stuff. A top-notch one, such as the British Museum in London, should be a storyteller, coaxing from its exhibits tales of our world and its history. It should invite, as Milton wrote of Aristotle’s Lyceum, ‘studious musing’, and it should transform its objects from inert relics to vital narrators. This is, in a sense, the overarching professional purpose of Neil MacGregor, who has been director of the British Museum since 2002, and he ferries his skills efficiently over into A History of the World in 100 Objects, adapted from his eponymous BBC Radio 4 series.
There’s no better way to illustrate MacGregor’s approach than with the example of the Rosetta Stone, object number 33 on his list of 100. The Rosetta Stone is indubitably the British Museum’s Mona Lisa, forever surrounded by tight knots of people gazing upon its inscrutable surface. From this fractured slab of granite, MacGregor culls three distinct histories: of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great; of the colonial race in Africa in the 1800s; and of the scholarly effort to decipher its hieroglyphs. Looking past its insipid bureaucratic inscriptions, moreover, MacGregor sees the Stone as ‘a particularly fascinating… case of power projection. It’s associated with a ruler who was not strong but weak…’ Reminders of our own age emerge all the time. When MacGregor asks the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif what the Stone tells her, she replies: “This stone makes me think of how often Egypt has been the theatre of other people’s battles.”
But perhaps the Rosetta Stone is too obvious an example. The charm of MacGregor’s book lies in how he reads, just as thoughtfully and elegantly, objects that might otherwise seem like the mere detritus of history. He chooses, among others, fragments of brick and textile; an HSBC credit card; a roof tile from Korea; assorted bronzes; coins and a banknote; pots both Moche and Jomon; helmets; an aboriginal bark shield from Australia; a pepper shaker; a chronometer from the HMS Beagle.
The urge to ask objects for their stories is not new, but never have we possessed such an astonishing range of tools to perform this inquiry. CT scanners probe beneath layers of fragile wrapping to establish the precise cause of death in a mummy. Computers help unravel ancient inscriptions. Radiocarbon techniques can date organic objects—petrified wood; cloth; paper—to within a few hundred years. MacGregor cites the case of a jade axe found near Canterbury in England, which baffled archaeologists about ‘where the jade in Europe could have come from’. Tracking the axe’s geological signature, however, archaeologists identified the very boulder in the Italian Alps from which the jade was chipped 6,000 years ago.
The result of such investigations is, in some ways, an alternate history of the world, one not as concerned with seminal men and events—with the Punic Wars or the reign of Napoleon or the salt of satyagraha—as with the lives of ordinary human beings. To represent a part of the history of European colonialism, for instance, MacGregor doesn’t give us relics of Cecil Rhodes or King Leopold II. Instead, he presents the Akan Drum—a simple cylinder sealed with deer hide, ‘made in Africa, taken to America, sent on to England’. The drum was originally part of ceremonial life in West Africa, but the captains of slave ships used it to keep slaves dancing and healthy on deck as they sailed across the Atlantic. ‘The story of the drum is a story of global displacement,’ MacGregor concludes, but he follows through with the thought that ‘like the drum, the children of slaves have now also come to England. Many descendants… now live together in the same cosmopolitan city’.
It’s a valuable lesson: the plot of history never signals its end neatly, as a film does; it continues to play out, often in unexpected ways, long after we have left the theatre.
MacGregor’s objects also deliver—to succumb to a pun that isn’t entirely coincidental—a more objective history of the world, because of how fundamentally different they are from the textual sources of history. For one thing, objects last while texts do not; writing a history gleaned from objects thus allows the narrator to include lost or vanquished civilisations that left no texts behind. (Out of four badge-sized swatches of textile, MacGregor can reconstruct the intricate belief system of a society living in Peru’s Paracas peninsula around 300 BC.) For another, objects help shift the focus of history away from text-heavy Europe, and away also from the elite upper classes, whose preserve writing and reading have traditionally been.
The most rewarding aspect of the book is its ability to restore the primacy of the object. We live in the most text-intensive age in history, quite forgetting that objects still make up the bulk of our everyday lives; to archaeologists a thousand years from now, our iPads will be mere objects, not the portals for reams of text we consider them to be. MacGregor delights in thinking about the past via an object, imagining the people who created it. The process involves a certain creative recreation, not at all different from the type that led Percy Bysshe Shelley to look upon a bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II (also at the British Museum) and write Ozymandias, a dirge to the frailties of imperial and human ambition. ‘A history through things,’ MacGregor writes, ‘is impossible without poets.’
There is, to the very existence of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a thread of meta-history worth commenting on. Why are these 100 objects—and others, from different geographies, cultures and civilisations—in the British Museum at all? Why are the Elgin Marbles not adorning the Parthenon as they did, and why did MacGregor himself once reject the idea of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, arguing that the British Museum’s duty was to “preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol”? The answers to those questions provide us with their own summations of our past—of the archival impulse, of artistic ideals, of the history of imperial power, and of the frictions that such power can create in our world.