There are no fixed rules for writing a history of the world. Unless one is tied to some text-bound pattern of belief, each of us can open the global story pretty much where we wish: by conjuring up a tiny speck in galactic time, by evoking primal creatures of the marsh, by feeling the heft of a chipped stone spear tip. Or we may take more personalized markers such as a shaper of nations, a trader in gold, a transcriber of tales, or a singer of songs.
Neil MacGregor has chosen to give structure to his history of the world by drawing on the capacious holdings of the British Museum, of which he is the director. This position gives him what is perhaps a paramount vantage point in selecting from the astonishing range of objects gathered in that wondrous institution. Initially founded in 1753 by the generosity of the polymath and collector Sir Hans Sloane, at a high point of Britain’s collecting fever, the museum was charged by Parliament with the obligation to develop a collection that would be “aimed at universality.”
MacGregor responded to that challenge two and a half centuries later by developing a joint project between the museum and the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Four, which serves essentially as the BBC‘s cultural connector to the public at large. In this project, MacGregor and his colleagues, in consultation with the BBC, would choose one hundred objects from the museum’s enormous holdings, around which they would develop one hundred radio programs, to be broadcast during the year 2010, on a schedule of five programs a week for twenty weeks. The first object illustrated in A History of the World in 100 Objects is a beautiful wooden mummy case from Thebes, dated around 240 BC. The last is a solar-powered lamp and charger made last year in China.
During the development phase of the project, MacGregor and his staff drafted one hundred brief essays and, in consultation with the BBC, invited writers, artists, and scholars from Britain, the United States, and many other countries to respond with comments of their own on one (or occasionally more) of the one hundred programs. These comments, often quite lengthy or emotionally charged, were then edited sparingly, to keep their spontaneous flavor, and incorporated into the final versions of the broadcast transcripts of the hundred programs. Since this was a radio program, and thus presented without visuals, the originals were on special display in the British Museum; they were also photographed and made available on a comprehensive website for those who could not see the originals in London.
The book as we now have it is thus a compilation of the one hundred objects, arranged more or less chronologically (since many cannot be dated with precision), each with essay and commentary as edited for final broadcast format, with attached writings from outside participants, color or black-and-white full-page photos of each item, and well-annotated maps that give the location at which each one of the hundred was found—though inevitably this information is not available in every case. Various bibliographic references to each contributor and object are also included.
The resulting volume as we now have it weighs in at 707 pages. A simple sampling of the book’s capacious indexes supports the intention of the British Museum and the BBC to cover as wide a geographical span as possible. Perhaps surprisingly there was a tie for first place in the number of references between China and the Americas (North, South, and Central). Britain/Britons tied for third place with Iran/Iraq. Fifth place was also a tie, between Egypt and Mexico. The most referenced concepts were Christianity, gods, Muslims, power/authority, religions/beliefs, trade, and writing. After that, the field was wide open.
MacGregor is disarming in his introductory comments to the book, and at one point he states that “this book might perhaps have been more accurately titled A History of Objects Through Many Different Worlds. But one advantage of the current title is, as he tells us, that a history of the world told through objects, as long as the treatment is made with “sufficient imagination,” should be “more equitable than one based solely on texts.” In his view, the central impact of being “equitable” is that it “allows many different peoples to speak.” Yet this raises other problems in its turn:
A history through objects, however, can never itself be fully balanced because it depends entirely on what happens to survive. It is particularly harsh on cultures whose artefacts are made mostly of organic materials, and especially so where climate will cause such things to decay: for most of the tropical world, very little survives from the distant past.
Because over millennia we have spent so much time concentrating on texts from the past, “we have centuries of critical apparatus to assist our assessment of written records. We have learnt how to judge their frankness, their distortions, their ploys.” In the history of objects, however, even this “partial certitude” eludes us. The best we can do in such circumstances is to make “a considerable leap of imagination, returning the artefact to its former life, engaging with it as generously, as poetically, as we can in the hope of winning the insights it may deliver.”
In a collaborative venture as complex as this one, in which certain tried and true textual guidelines are seen as only partially relevant to our current preoccupations, obviously the editorial task of carving out the new blocks for investigation becomes a personal matter as well as a historiographical one. Thus at a certain level we evaluate MacGregor’s labors by way of his organizational structure—realizing also that this is a complex process involving numerous minds, in the radio as well as the museum world, not to mention the cumulative weight of the outside commentators. But as a guide to giving some perspective to our reading of the objects, the chronological framework MacGregor constructs to link his explorations into a shared world of terms is a useful one. It is especially valuable just because the main categories overlap so much more than they would in the once-conventional linear manner.
Following the broadcast arrangement of one hundred sections spread across twenty weeks, we can separate out the following rough guide to the whole structure. Parts One to Six focus on early human inventions and explorations, such as the shaping and sharpening of tools, the first modeling of forms, and the growth of communities, which merge into the increasing complexity of understandings of food and sex; the formation of early empires from Egypt to China; and the development of writing systems and scientific investigations. Parts Seven to Fourteen show the range of human curiosity, from the Rosetta Stone, the new religious faiths from Shiva to Easter Island, the silk road, Mayan culture, and the elements of trade and status that were linked to all the expansive movements of people and ideas. In the last part of the book, Parts Fifteen to Twenty, MacGregor sees a new shift of focus, a new range of structural changes, that take humans across the “threshold of the modern world” and into the “first global economy,” and thence to our current universe of “mass production” and “mass persuasion.”
But such a brief outline is skeletal indeed, and this book’s main strength resides in the details rather than in broad generalizations. Regardless of the sweeping panoramas, each of the sections has something interesting to say, and prior knowledge of a given topic does not prevent us from gathering new insights from the text and the illustrations, and new angles of vision. Some of the images scattered through the book are so astonishing and so far from our usual perceptions that I don’t think I will ever forget them. For strength of purpose in motion, how could one better the image of two reindeer, carved from a mammoth tusk around 11,000 BC, discovered in France? The deer bodies are linked together, their heads thrown back with effort, swimming fiercely against the current: it is an extraordinary image of power and compression.
A very different type of imaging can be seen in the patterns of concentration and anxiety caught in the faces of a set of early chessmen. Carved from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth around the year 1150 AD, found on the Scots Isle of Lewis (though possibly made in Norway), these figures catch the aura of fierce self-absorption that precedes the conflict to come, as the mounted knights, thoughtful king, and already grieving queen surround their bishop, who holds firmly onto his Bible and his crosier. Many other aspects of battle, death, and slavery, and the fates of the long lines of refugees, not yet resigned to their fate, are shown in Egyptian and Assyrian paintings and bas-reliefs, as the vanquished enemies are led toward an unknown life at the hands of their new Egyptian masters.
But as an image and memento of the agonies of war, I have never seen anything that quite equals in force the monstrous metallic chair sculpted and assembled with grim precision by the Mozambique artist Kester in 2001 AD. In memory of the one million–plus victims of civil war in his country, Kester chopped apart and reconfigured the abandoned weapons of both loyalists and rebels in his homeland into this grim and fanciful work of art. This handful of images is the merest fraction of the one hundred assembled in the volume. Because of the local practices at the time of creation, the images are mostly anonymous, but they serve to remind us, as MacGregor writes in his introduction, that for the history of objects to have maximum impact the author must call on both imagination and originality.
It also remains true that the kind of history found in MacGregor’s book is going to be sparse on names, places, and even specific issues. The rigid format of the book, with its units of five, twenty, and one hundred items, can also be constricting and end up preventing the construction of logical connections between parallel sets of circumstances. So perhaps the best way to evaluate MacGregor’s history of the world with a bit more precision than we have done so far is to give a clearer example of its linkages across time and space, to move from the object to the sources and the argument. Let us take a randomly chosen slice of the book, the one listed as Part Eight, and see where it leads us.
Part Eight is entitled “Ancient Pleasures, Modern Spice,” and states its setting to be the time span from 1 AD to 500 AD. Like every other one of the twenty separate parts that cumulatively form the book as a whole, this Part Eight is composed of five distinctly identified sections, which in the book are numbered as Sections 36 through 40. Each section has its own title, and each of them is between five and six pages long. The first in order of the five sections is number 36, which is titled “Warren Cup.” A silver Roman drinking cup, it is dated 5–15 AD. Section 37 is titled “North American Otter Pipe” and its dates given as 200 BC–100 AD. Section 38 is titled “Ceremonial Ballgame Belt” and dated 100–500 AD. Section 39 is called “Admonitions Scroll” and dated 500–800 AD. The fifth and last section, titled “Hoxne Pepper Pot,” is dated 350–400 AD. In addition, each of the five is labeled according to the British Museum system, with the location where it was first discovered or observed. The Warren Cup is described as having been found in the town of Bittir, near Jerusalem. The North American Otter Pipe is described as having been found in Mound City, Ohio. The provenance of the Ceremonial Ballgame Belt is listed as “found in Mexico.” The Admonitions Scroll is simply labeled “Painting, from China.” And the Hoxne Pepper Pot is listed as “Found in Hoxne, Suffolk, England.”