History through Objects

I visited the British Museum last year. Due to the shortage of time, I decided to take the one-hour tour suggested by the brochure: a visit to ten objects separated across various galleries, spanning historical space and time. Even though it was a good introduction, and gave me a taste of the museum as a whole, I was strangely dissatisfied: it was rather like cramming for an exam where you end up with a lot of bits of disjointed knowledge.

As we were leaving the museum, I asked my brother-in-law (who is settled in England) what book I should buy from the museum, and he suggested A History of the World through 100 Objects by Neil McGregor. He had listened to the original BBC radio series and liked it very much. Well, I have to thank him, because this book opened up a whole new vista on how we should view objects in a museum, and why my whirlwind tour left me disappointed.

By a very fortunate coincidence, the “Hundred Objects” mentioned in the book – well, most of them, as some cannot be removed from the museum – are doing a world tour, and they are currently in Abu Dhabi. So I was able to make a tour of the collection once again, and with the experience of reading the book in mind, I was able to go back in time and look at the precious items behind glass and imagine human beings like myself handling them. Also, I could think of the everyday objects of today being enshrined as history in the future, long after I’m gone.

It gives a sense of both mortality and immortality.

How does one look at objects in a museum? I must confess that I had not given much thought to this subject until I read A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. When I enter a museum, I usually wander around just gawking at the display and reading the info on the more interesting ones. Or, if I know about something specific that the museum is famous for (like the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum or the Narmer Palette in the Cairo Museum), I make a beeline for the object and spend some time gazing in reverential awe at it. After I spend what I consider a sufficient amount of time in the building, I come out, smugly satisfied at having “done” the museum properly.

Neil MacGregor has taught me that I have been doing it all wrong. A museum is a history book (although a taciturn one) and once you have learnt the language of objects, a really fascinating one. Because unlike history written by humans, which can be true, embellished or outright lies, the history told by objects can never be false. But we have to tease it out of them: the effort has to be there on our part. Otherwise, any trip to the museum becomes just a sightseeing tour.

This book is the written from of a series of talks given by the author, Director of the British Museum, on the BBC. In the preface and introduction, the author talks about the many challenges: the main one (absent from the book!) being the medium of the radio, where visual imagery is impossible. But then, he realised that this is also one of the strengths-because the listener is forced to use his imagination, not only for the object, but also for the story behind it.

That is what one has to do while reading this book. Let the imagination roam free across space and time: as MacGregor describes the object, puts it in its historical context, and pulls in experts from various fields like art, literature, history etc. to give their opinions on it, the mind of the reader is engaged in a continuous dialogue with history. As we trace mankind’s origins from the Olduvai gorge in Africa to the interconnected modern world, the sense of linear time slowly disappears history starts looking like a geography of time.

The book is written in small chapters of 5-6 pages each, five chapters (one working week of five days) forming a common theme. This structure is easily accessible, even to the miniscule attention spans engendered by TV shows and the internet. The book can be read through in one sitting, or savoured as small tidbits over a long period. However one does it, it does not lose its efficacy.

MacGregor starts with one of the most popular objects in the museum – the mummy of Hornedjitef –as a curtain raiser. The remaining 99 chapters are largely chronological, spanning countries and continents over defined time bands the author has selected as historical themes. In the earlier chapters, these time bands are large, spanning millenniums: then they narrow down to centuries and finally to decades as history becomes more crowded and compressed. And we see mankind, which has been existing as isolated pockets of civilisation, slowly expand and get connected.

For me, the most fascinating thing about this book was not the stories told by the objects, but what they left unsaid: I found myself musing about the people, long dead and gone, who must have handled these objects, many a time little knowing they would they would be enshrined and viewed by millions. For example, look at the Kilwa pot sherds (Chapter 60) from Tanzania: the housewife or maid who handled them- what might have they been like? What were they thinking as they washed, dried and cooked in these utensils? What would have gone through their minds when they finally threw them away? And (most importantly) the ordinary objects we throw away now – will they carry a similar message in a museum in, say, the year 2500?

Or let’s look at objects from relatively unknown cultures, like the Moche Warrior Pot (Chapter 48) from Peru or the Taino Ritual Seat (Chapter 65) from the Dominican Republic. It is obvious that these are important objects, religiously and culturally; yet the culture remains a mystery to us. Once again, we can only recreate in our mind the ceremonies which might have been conducted with these objects holding positions of importance.

Moche Warrior Pot

Taino Ritual Seat

There are also “famous” objects in these pages, like the Rosetta Stone (Chapter 33), the Parthenon Sculptures (Chapter 27) and India’s own Indus Seal (Chapter 13). Even though these objects are known to any educated person, MacGregor puts them in a new context and new light so that one learns to look at them anew.

The Rosetta Stone

Indus Seal

In the Introduction the author says that this book could have been as well called A History of Objects Through Many Different Worlds. I agree. Each object sings a solitary tune: sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and sometimes even creepy. Put together, they create a beautiful symphony – the song of humanity, separated by time and space, over a million different worlds. This book opened my ears to that music.

Museum visits shall never be the same again!

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